Tag Archives: Dharma

Varuna and his decline – Part One


Abstract and Intro

(1) The saga of Varuna is truly amazing. Though his story started with a bang; it sadly ended in a whimper. Perhaps very few other gods – Vedic or otherwise – witnessed such vicissitudes in the turn of their fortunes.

The Varuna story covers a very large canvass – in content, space and time. The story of his preeminence has its roots in the pre-Vedic era; it flourishes in the early Rig Veda inspiring awe and reverence; and as it flows into other Vedas, Brahmanas and Upanishads, Varuna’s associations with the sky, the water and the order in the universe as also in the ethical conduct of men,  all these, acquire new dimensions with mystical connotations. Till then, he is the highest lord in the Vedic pantheon, the most virtuous and the most powerful all-pervading god.

Varuna, up to a point, is the nearest equivalent to the Supreme; as he is projected as the creator and sustainer of all existence; the lord of Space; the maker of Heaven and Earth. His glory spreads far and wide into the Gathas and into the Bhrigu lore. The treaties entered  by the Mitanni kings of the distant Sumerian region (in about 1500 BCE) are sworn in the name of Varuna and his peer-Vedic –gods.

However, with the parting of ways of the ancient sages Bhrigu and Angirasa, Varuna becomes exclusively the Great God of the Aryans to the west of the Sindhu River; while Indra takes over as the King of the Devas. Varuna is eclipsed in the Vedic pantheon.

(2) Commencing with the Taittiriya Samhita ( which identifies Varuna, mainly, with night and darkness; his career takes a steep nosedive. Initially, he loses his sole kingship over the sky ; and,  then he has to share his authority with another god who is younger and more energetic – Mitra.  Varuna gets  disassociated with the day sky ; which symbolizes clarity, brightness and brilliance; and , he is made the god of only the night sky. His ethical role too diminishes.

With that, Varuna draws nearer to night, darkness and death. Varuṇa’s dark associations bring him close to gods of negative traits such as Yama, Nirṛti, Soma, and Rudra. His character and disposition too undergo a marked change, for the worse. From a benevolent and graceful god, he turns into a spiteful, malevolent and stern judge cum punisher.

His physical appearance too turns ugly: he is now pictured as a fat, bald ugly looking cruel man with yellow or brownish red eyes, protruding teeth; and, wielding a noose.

One after another, his powers and authority steadily depart from him. Varuna eventually ends up in the Puranas as a demigod in charge of local water bodies; and,  as the guardian of the west where the sun sinks into darkness and from where the night takes over.

(3) The story of his pre-eminence in the pre-Vedic and in the early Rig Veda era; the modifications that came about   in his profile during the later ages; his fall from elevated position; and his eventual eclipse, is truly astounding.

In a manner of speaking, the course of Varuna’s career epitomizes the dynamic character of the Indian mythological lore. And, it also traces graphically the evolution, the development and the vicissitudes that came about in the corkscrew course of Indian theological history in response to the needs , changes and challenges it encountered at each stage of its unfolding over the millennia.

(4) Varuna saga should not be viewed in isolation. It is better appreciated when it is placed against the background of the scheme, the process or the phenomenon that swept across the world of Vedic mythology in the distant past. That process, spread over long centuries, totally convulsed the sedate world of Vedic gods. It was akin to churning the ocean. It disturbed the old order; threw out the old set of gods; created and magnified a set of new gods; and, restructured the entire Indian pantheon.

Under this process of reorganizing the world of Indian mythology… those Vedic gods who had been ‘minor’ in the Rig Veda but who held great potential and offered rich scope for enlargement and glorification were re-modeled into much greater gods.

Later, those gods came to represent larger segments of life and experiences; and to mobilize greater strength and significance. The virtues and powers of numerous other gods merged into those select gods. They are today the Super Gods in the Indian pantheon.

At the same time, those gods whose characters, functions and achievements had been too vividly described in Rig Veda; and, those who held out little scope for further enlargement were steadily reduced in their status and rank And those  gods whose profile was too dim ; and, had very little potential for growth were allowed to fade out quietly.

In this scheme or the process of restructure, the gods that adopted best to the changing needs of times survived and thrived. One way that was done was by underplaying their Vedic characteristics   which were rather sketchy and unsuitable. And, another was by aligning them along with tutelary gods that were already being worshiped. …..In this period of transition, popular sectarian gods were gradually replacing the older Vedic gods. This new approach to the gods redefined the status, character and attributes of the older gods.

This was also a process of absorption of several gods into One; and, it culminated in the emergence of the triad, of which the two: Vishnu and Shiva inherited all the rich, adorable and living traits of all the other gods that preceded them. They were also endowed with infinite potential and capacity to imbibe the traits of all the gods yet to come.

(5) The sequence of gods changing – growing or diminishing in significance – indicates the continual influx of new ideas and a creative conflict within the existing system of thoughts. This complex and dynamic interplay of light and shadow is a distinctive feature of the Indian pantheon.

inverted treeThe growth and development of Indian mythology and thought resembles the imagery of the inverted tree – of which our ancients were very fond – with its roots in the sky and its branches spreading down towards the earth. Its roots are ancient but its growing shoots, leaves, buds, flowers and fruits are ever green, tender and fresh. The roots of our philosophy, religion and culture are in the very distant Vedic past. Though those roots are no longer visible to us, the branches and extensions of those roots in vivid forms that have come down to us are very alive; and, its fruits are within our experience.


The idioms of Indian thought are thus dynamic, living and vibrant. They are linked to the spiritual urges and the changing needs, desires and aspirations of its people. The gods, the faiths and the worship practices too keep evolving, changing, without parting with the essence of its fundamentals. Therefore, growth, change and adaptation are essential aspects of the Indian thought and living. It is distinguished by continuity with change; as also by its resilience and diversity. That is the genius of the Indian traditions.

The Varuna saga, albeit a painful one, has to be appreciated in that context.

maze negetive

(6) Varuna of Rig Veda had a rather disappointing end; but, he did leave behind a rich legacy of wonderful concepts and norms of behavior in personal and social life (Rta) that have endured even to this day. Those laws are universal; applicable at all times and therefore eternal. 

The concept of Rta asserts that the order in nature is self regulated and operates by its own laws (svabhava); and, not necessarily by the will of gods. Ensuring the perpetuation of the order and harmony in nature is as sacred  and as important as it is in conduct of one’s life. That is because; Rta emphasizes the integrity of all forms of life and ecological systems. The principle of Rta recognizes our oneness with our environment and our unity with all life on earth. It is the framework that binds together man, nature and god.  Rta is thus the Dharma – the order – that pervades and protects all life. It asserts the principle that the physical order of the universe is also the moral order of the universe; Rta is both.

When that order and harmony is ruptured, the disruptive elements of disorder, chaos and falsehood (an-rta) step in, bringing in their wake ugliness, dishonesty, falsehood  and, decay into life.

It is explained; a sin is any inharmonious action done with avarice to gain some immediate and temporary gain. Thus, injuring the harmony that exists in nature and among men is indeed the sin; and, it attracts punishment. The sin arises because of frailties and human weaknesses; and not because of demons. The evil in the hearts and minds of men are the real demons.

Sin is compared to unpaid debt (rna); it is a burden and an act of bad faith. The best way to cleanse the sin is to come face to face with it; own it; confess to it; and seek forgiveness with a promise not to err again. Cleansing is in the heart, mind and deed; not in the rituals. That is the Varuna’s way.

Paschat-tapa – ‘after the burning heat’ – signifies the purifying fire of repentance. The life-giving waters over which Varuna presides also signifies purity. Varuna is intimately associated with the both. Thus the Varuna-principle stands for purity in life.


(7) Let’s in the following five articles trace the journey of Varuna from the Rig Veda through the other Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads as also Mahabharata and the Puranas. Let’s also later see his connection with Ahur Mazda of the Gathas.


A. Varuna in the Rig Veda

The encompasser

1.1. Varuna of Rig Veda, the one who encompasses (var) the whole world, is one of the oldest Vedic deities. He belongs to the older generation of gods than that of Indra; and, his origins go back to the pre-Vedic era. It is said, Varuna was un-created or unborn; he existed before the very dawn of creation; and, he manifested himself along with the wake of the world. That perhaps is a poetic way of suggesting that Varuna had been recognized as a sovereign ruler even before the dawn of Rig Vedic age.

1.2. He is the mightiest of the early Rig Vedic gods. He is celebrated in the Rig Veda variously as: the universal monarch; the king of all gods, the sovereign who dwells in all the realms ; the best among the Adityas the solar deities ; the lord of the sky; the god of heavenly light; the overlord who established and governed the cosmic order Rta; the guardian and upholder of righteousness – Dharma , Dharmanaam pathi; the stern but merciful judge who judges all men and punishes the wrongdoers; the healer with thousand remedies;  the omnipresent and  omniscient, possessing limitless knowledge; kavi, the seer par excellence ;  there is none wiser than he; the wielder of divine power and wisdom Maya; the controller of the destinies of mankind; one who forges the magical and speculative relationship between god and man; the lord of water element , clouds, seas and rivers Sindhu-pathi; and as the king of waters Ambu -raja.

Everything is subject to Varuna’s authority and control; nothing happens without his knowledge; and he takes everything.

1.3. No other Vedic deity is invested with such grand attributes and authority . Together with Mitra, Varuna more than any other god is in charge of the established order of the universe, the fixed rules of conduct – both physical and moral- ‘dhtavrata’.  Varuna inspired awe and reverence.

Lord of Ethics

2.1. The attributes and functions ascribed to Varuna impart to his character a moral elevation and sanctity far surpassing that attributed to any other Vedic deity. His extreme concern is the morality of human beings.

2.2. While the hymns addressed to other gods seek long life, wealth, and power; the prayers submitted to Varuna seek purity of heart, forgiveness, and release from sins; and, for moral strength not to err again. They are replete with humble confessions of guilt and repentance. The hymns in praise of Varuna ‘the most impressive deity among all the Vedic gods’ are lofty, devout and ethical in tone. The hymns rise to a pitch of exaltation when they sing the splendor of Varuna.

In these hymns Varuna, more than any other Vedic god, appears mighty and merciful. He is feared as a severe judge. He terrifies the guilty; but is most compassionate to the virtuous.

The resplendent god

3.1. Rig Veda describes Varuna’s appearance in glowing terms: as the most resplendent god of radiant- sky-blue complexion, with Agni in his face and Surya in his eye. He is far sighted (uru-chaksasa). He is the eye of all the worlds (jagath-chakshu- RV.1.25.5). He has soft and beautiful hands (supani) in which he holds lotuses and   an auspicious noose. He is splendidly adorned in golden mantel (drapi) and a shining robe.

His chariot dazzles brilliantly like sunrays (ghabasti suro nadyauth – RV.1.122.15).Varuna and Mitra ride the golden chariot like floating clouds in the blue sky, drawn by well yoked steeds. (Rv.5.62.7). in the midst of vast heavens urukşhaya (RV 1.2.9) he is seated on a splendid throne placed in his  golden palace of thousand pavilions, thousand columns (RV 2.41.5) and thousand doors (RV 7.88.5).  From his glittering throne, the monarch (samrajnya) watches over the deeds of all men and gods (pastyasu)- (RV 1.22.11-12).

Verily all of you are very great

4.1. The Mandalas of Rig Veda do not attempt stacking up its gods in a graded order; but strive to discover the Great One (Mahat) that is the source of all. There are no inferiors or superiors among the Vedic gods.”There is no one among you Oh Devas..! who is an infant or a boy .Verily all of you are very great” (na hi vo astyarbhako devaa so na kumaraha, visve sato mahanta iti – RV 8.30.1).

No one god in particular was regarded as the superior deity guiding and controlling the rest. But, all gods of Rig Veda were of co-ordinate power; and no one among them was recognized as supreme God per se, even though some gods were more imposing than others. Such gods included, particularly, Indra, Agni and Varuna, the gods of the warriors, of the yajna and of the pious devotees, respectively.

4.2. You come across in the Vedas, the hymns where a particular deity is lauded in glowing terms and celebrated as the highest among the gods. There is also a tendency  to elevate now this god and later another to the highest pedestal ;and, to look upon him as the greatest power. It is explained; in all such instances the high praise and tributes paid are truly addressed to the Absolute, the Supreme principle; and, not to the god in question who merely is a manifestation of That One. Thus, all gods of Rig Veda are of equal status.

Varuna on makara

The Mighty King

5.1. The equitable status accorded to all gods, as explained above, was generally in the context of the younger gods, the Devas. But, Varuna belonged to the older generation wherein he was honoured with a very special status and hailed as the greatest god, Asura Mahat. Varuna continued to occupy that elevated pedestal until his demise or until the rise of Indra. Therefore in the early hymns of the Rig Veda, Varuna occupies a special and an exalted position. He alone is hailed as the king (Raja) (RV 7.87.6), kshatra (secular power, sovereignty and kingship) and Kshatriya; the king of gods (MS 2.21); the king of the territories (raja-raastranam) (RV 7.34.11); an independent ruler (svaraja) (RV 1.28.1); the self-dependant ruler (svaraat), and samraja the universal monarch (RV 1.36.1; 8.42.1).

5.2. As the emperor, Varuna is mighty and awe-inspiring. He is Risadas the destroyer of enemies (RV 1.2.7), tuvijata and uruksaya mighty (RV 1.02.9). His might and speed are unequalled (RV 1.24.8) . He rules over both men and gods; and presides over the relationship between man and the gods. His sovereignty pervades both the physical and moral domains, where his laws are equally eternal and inviolable.”Indra protects from external foe; Varuna protects and upholds the moral order rtaRV 7.83.9”. Even a god does not dare transgress his immutable ordinances (vrataani).He restricts and fetters the wrong doers with his bonds that he has at his command.

mitraṁ huve pūtadakṣaṁ varuṇaṁ ca riśādasam |dhiyaṁ ghṛtācīṁ sādhantā || 1. 2.07

kavī no mitrāvaruṇā tuvijātā urukṣayā |1,002.09

ṛtena mitrā-varuṇā-vṛtāvṛdhāvṛtaspṛśā |kratuṁ bṛhantamāśāthe || 1. 2.08

vṛtrāṇy anyaḥ samitheṣu jighnate vratāny anyo abhi rakṣate sadā |7,083.09

5.3. He is not only the supreme kshatra, supreme Asura, the wise king, the best of the Adityas but he is also the abode of life (visvayu). The term Asura (one who controls asu = breath or life) meaning the Lord of Life is particularly applied to Varuna (RV 2.8.27).  Prayers are submitted to him to grant an enjoyable  life-span of hundred Shrad-ritus, better than the life lived by their forefathers – śataṃ no rāsva śarado vicakṣe, acyāmāyūṃṣi sudhitāni pūrvā (2.27.10).|He is celebrated as the all knowing Asura (asuro visvavedaha –RV 8.42.1), and as the wise and attentive king (asurah prachetah –RV 1.124.14). In some passages the scope of the term is extended by adding the title ‘the king’ (RV 1.24.14; 10.132.4) or even stronger ‘the universal king ‘(RV 8.42.1).

His dominant position is declared by stating Varuna is the Asura and the king of all gods (RV 2.27.10).  “I am king Varuna; these powers (Asurya) were first given to me”- (ahaṃ rājā varuṇo mahyaṃ tāny asuryāṇi prathamā dhārayantaRV 4.42.2). Mitra and Varuna are described as the two noble (Arya) Asuras (or lords) of the Devas – Devanaam asurah – (tā hi devānām asurā tāv aryā tā naḥ kṣitīḥ karatam ūrjayantīḥRV 7.65.2)

tvaṁ viśveṣāṁ varuṇāsi rājā ye ca devā asura ye ca martāḥ | śataṁ no rāsva śarado vicakṣe’śyāmāyūṁṣi sudhitāni pūrvā || 2.27.10 ||

5.4. In the Rig Veda, the totality of godly powers is called asuratvam; and it is called Mahat the great one. Varuna is Asura- mahat (Mahat devaanaam asuratvam ekam – RV 3.55.1-2). He is also regarded as the sovereign who created the Universe: The All-Wise Varuna – asuro visvavedaha-Rig Veda 8.42.1”. He also put in place the cosmic order and governed the physical as also the moral aspects of existence. He is also the punisher and a fearsome destroyer.

5.5. Thus, Varuna of Rig Veda, heralded as the most exalted god (though only for a brief period) is endowed with these powers and authority. And, with his omniscience and omnipotence he is the nearest approximation to the structure of a Supreme Being, the Almighty God – the creator, preserver and destroyer. But, the text stops short of declaring him or any other deity as the Supreme God. The powers and virtues attributed to Varuna were later crystallized and appropriated among the Trinity of the mythologies which came up later.


6.1. Rig Veda celebrates the glory of Varuna in myriad ways ; and describes him as : the Great One (Mahat); the vast (brahat); the mighty (bhuri);the immense (prabhuti);  the abode of life (visvayu); the knower (vidvas); the wise (medha);the intelligent (dhira); the discriminating (pracetas); the clever (grtsa); the adept , dexterous (sukratu); the inspired (vipra); the seer (kavi); the great-poet (kavitara); the greatest of poets (kavitama).

Amarakosa has five synonyms for Varuna :  (1.1.142) pracetā varuṇaḥ pāśī yādasāṃpatir-appatiḥ

Besides these, Varuna has other sets of titles as being the lord of waters, the lord of Rta;   and as the king and judge. We shall see more of those in the next sections.  He has too many epithets. I admit, it is rather confusing.


[Before going further, a short explanation of the term Asura in the early Rig Veda:

7.1. The term Asura was used in the Rig Veda to indicate the powerful or the mighty one. Its application was more as an adjective than as a noun. This term was applied not only to gods but also to other powerful individuals. In the early Books of Rig Veda, Asura as a designation appears only in the singular or in dual form (as in Mitra-Varuna). Asura in that context did not refer to a cult or to a group or  to a class of gods, just in the manner it referred to group of Devas , as  in the case of visve devah. In other words, Asura was a title of highest lordship or honor assigned to certain gods who were regarded mighty, powerful and worship- worthy. These gods in general were also addressed as Devas. The older deities celebrated as Devas were often addressed as Asura, just to emphasize their power and might.

For instance; in Rig Veda, Indra the king of Devas is addressed in about sixteen hymns as Asura, possessing Asurya or Asuratya. His deeds are described as Asurani– the powerful, as those of Asuras . Similarly, the three other mighty deities of Rig Veda: Agni, Varuna and Mitra (in company of Varuna) are called Asura. Rudra is described in accusative form as devam asuram (RV. 42.11), the Asura possessing Asurya or bestowing it. Dayus the ancient sky-god too was called Asura. Some other Vedic deities too were at times called Asura, as in the case of : Savitar, Surya, Vayu, Maruts, the Adityas and Apam Napat. Ushas the goddess of dawn was said to possess Asuratva.

7.2. There are no cases in Rig Veda where a god is called Asura in respectful sense in one instance and then called an Asura in the demonic sense in another instance. Hence the change that came about was truly in the usage of the term and the meaning assigned to it at different times; and, it did not signify a change in the nature or the character of the god to whom the term was applied.

As said earlier, Asura meant highest lordship. Dayus the old sky-god was the earliest Asura. But, since Dayus , more and more , came to mean the physical sky and not the Great God, the epithet then was applied to Varuna the new sky-god; and later to Indra and other gods. But, the term Asura was applied particularly to Varuna to signify his supreme lordship over men and gods (viśveṣāṃ varuṇāsi rājā ye ca devā asura ye ca martāḥRV 2. 27.10).

Aditi mother of gods

Aditi, the mother of gods, it is said, produced Mitra and Varuna for Asurya – Might or mightiness.  “This Asura rules over the gods”: mahad devānām asuratvam ekam – RV_3,055.01 to 22

[Sage Kapila , said to be the founder of the Samkhya system of Philosophy, is often addressed as Asura. And, his son or disciple is Asuri , another great Samkhya philosopher.]

No other Vedic god is described in this manner (anyad-anyad asuryaṃ vasānā ni māyino mamire rūpam asminRV_3,038.07 ) . It is explained; the Asurya and the dignity connected with being Asura in the case of Varuna is his original characteristic. That suggests; Varuna was a sovereign ruler even at the dawn of Rig Vedic age. However, in the case of Indra, it is said, his Asurya   was inherited from Varuna; it was not Indra’s own. When Indra is called Asura or invested with Asurya , it is done merely because Indra happened to succeed Varuna as the king of gods.

7.3. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (3.1), Mahabharata (shanthi parva: 33.25) and Amarakosha all describe Asuras , the sons of Diti, as the elder brothers or the older gods, while the Devas are the younger ones.

7.4. The sea-change that came about in the meaning assigned to the term Asura can also be explained in the context of the religious history of the Vedic people.

When the Aryan community was undivided, the terms Asura and Deva both denoted gods of high respect. The gods were referred to Asura as also Deva. But at a certain phase of their history, the Vedic people became divided along the lines of affiliation to two great and ancient sages Apam Napat and Angirasa. These sages belonged to the pre –Vedic period. The parting of their ways came about mainly because of the stand each took on issues such as: monotheism; worship of God through formless medium; use of icons in worship; and above all, on the question of the status to be accorded to the old god Varuna.

The Bhrigu clan who generally were to the west of the mighty Sindhu River continued: to regard Varuna as the Greatest and the only God – Asura Mahat; to favor worship through the formless medium of fire and honor the principle of Rta the moral order governed by Varuna as the highest good of all .

The Angirasas who were the preceptors of the dominant Aryans on the east of the Sindhu, on the other hand, elevated the more energetic and vibrant younger gods the Devas (Indra and others) to exalted positions and treated all Devas as equally great .These Devas were personified and described as having forms. Besides, the Angirasas relegated the passive old gods such as Varuna to very low positions in the Vedic pantheon, and also soft peddled Rta principle the moral order governed  by Varuna.

( We shall talk a bit more on these issues in the last part of this article.)

7.5. The parting of their ways was hardly a sweet-sorrow; it was laced with rancor and hate. The Bhrigu and the Angirasa clans each ascribed its own chosen words of abuse to the terms Asura or Deva, depending on to which side of the Sindhu they belonged. In the later Vedic texts Asuras came to mean demons.

Towards the later books of the Rig Veda (6, 7, 8 and 10) the term Asura underwent extraordinary semantic change. It not only became a noun from an adjective; but also acquired a totally different meaning of demon or demonic. And in the sixth Book of Rig Veda (RV 6.022.09), Indra for the first time came to known as janasya divyasya rājā, the king of gods. And the idea, of course, became more popular and crystallized later in the Puranas.

In the Brahmanas of Krishna Yajur Veda , the term Asura was used in the sense of anti-god. It then was usually expressed in plural to suggest a group of beings opposed to gods. And, when it was used in singular (in the same sense) it was expressed as aasura. In the Shatapatha Brahmana the terms Asura and Rakshasa came close to each other.]

The Varuna – hymns

8.1. Varuna is indeed one of the mighty gods of Rig-Veda, though he is celebrated exclusively in just about ten hymns (RV 1.24. 25; 2.28; 5.85; 7.86 to 89 and 8.41 to 42).Besides, he is praised along with Mitra (Maitra –varuna) in twenty-three hymns; and with Indra (Indra-Varuna) in nine hymns. These numbers are rather small as compared to the numbers of hymns addressed to Indra and Agni, which are about six-fold greater.

For instance; in Book Three  no hymn is addressed to Varuna while twenty-two are devoted to Indra. Similarly, in Book eleven there is only one hymn to Varuna while twenty-three are addressed to Indra .

For some reason, Varuna is less frequently mentioned in the last book than in the earlier books of Rig Veda.

That does not in any manner diminish the importance, might, glory and power of Varuna as depicted in Rig Veda.

8.2. If Varuna is so great and important why is it that only a handful of hymns are dedicated to him in the Samhitas?

That might be because of the dark traits associated with him. Varuna was not wholly benevolent like Indra in the early Rig-Veda. Varuna is rather an ambivalent character – now favourable; and now unfavourable. He was a judgmental god who inspired awe and fear. Yet, Varuna was essentially a god of placid nature. And the Vedic poets were decidedly in favor of uncompromisingly good gods who protected people from enemies, diseases and draught. That process perhaps eventually led to Indra replacing the old god Varuna and taking charge as the chief of the Devas.

8.3. The Varuna – hymns are remarkably varied in their content and scope. They portray range of Varuna’s attributes; but, they project, mainly, four of his functions: as the universal monarch and lord of the sky; as the upholder of the cosmic order Rta; as related to water element (apah); and, as omniscient deity with unique magical knowledge (Maya)   who oversees men’s’ actions.

We shall discuss each of his main attributes and functions in the next part of in this article.

Continued in Part Two


References and Sources

1. Indra and Varuna in Indian Mythology by Dr. Usha Choudhuri; Nag Publishers, Delhi, 1981

2. The Indian Theogony by Dr.Sukumari Bhattarcharji, Cambridge University Press, 1970

3. Asura in early Vedic religion by WE Hale; Motilal Banarsidass; Delhi, 1986

4. Goddesses in ancient India by PK Agrawala,; Abhinav Publications, New Delhi,1984

5. The Hymns of Atharvan Zarathustra by JM Chatterji; the Parsi Zoroastrian Association, Calcutta, 1967;

6. Outlines of Indian Philosophy –Prof M Hiriyanna; Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 2005

7.Original Sanskrit texts on the 0rigin and history of the people of India, their region and institution By J. Muir;Trubner & co., London, 1870.

8. A classical dictionary of Hindu mythology and religion, geography, history, and literature byJohn Dowson; Turner & co, Ludgate hill. 1879.

9. Vaidika Sahitya Charitre by Dr. NS Anantharangachar; DVK Murthy, Mysore, 1968

10. Sri Brahmiya Chitra Karma sastram by Dr. G. Gnanananda

11. Zarathustra Chapters 1-6 by Ardeshir Mehta; February 1999

All images are by courtesy of Internet


Posted by on October 4, 2012 in Varuna


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The Three Women In Mahabharata (3 Of 3) -Draupadi

The men play dice and wage wars in Mahabharata , as anywhere else ; but it is the women who wield power and influence. 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 in particular who wielded power in more than one form were Sathyavathi the dusky fragrant fisher girl who became the queen , Pritha the fair maiden who reluctantly became the mother of five sons and Krishnaa , daughter of the fire , Druapadi. The Epic is interwoven with their remarkable sagacity in exercise of their power and leadership. Some say the Epic , in a way , is a study in use and abuse of power.

These women displayed that the truly powerful do not cling to power. They knew when and how to wield it but also, even more important, to when not to use it

blue lotus


She was called Parshati (सूतस्येति वचः श्रुत्वा पार्षती दुःखिताऽवदत् sūtasyeti vacaḥ śrutvā pārṣatī duḥkhitā’vadat) ; Panchali , Draupadi; Shri ; Yajnaseni … but she was Krishnaa the dusky princess evoking fragrance of the blue lotus (nīlotpala-sugandhinī) . She sprang out of the sacrificial fire, resplendent and glowing as a tower of blaze, full grown and in the bloom of her youth ; not requiring the matrix of human womb.

Draupadi -birth

She was to be a kritya, an avenging fury to wreck vengeance on the foes of her father Yagnasena Drupada – the king of the Somaka-s, one of the five tribes of the Panchala-s ; though he had not asked for her. Fire was her nature. She was fearless, endowed with a single-minded determination as a piercing jet of flame . She lived with a fire burning in her soul , all her life.

Shyama padma palashakshi ; Neela kunchita murdhaja; Manysama vigraham kritva ; Saksath  amara varnini;  Nilotpala samoghandho ; Yasaha proshat pravayati; Ya bibharti param rupam;  Yasyah nastyo pama bhuvi 

The tales of  flame like beauty of the enchanting princess of Panchala blessed with every auspicious feature (sarva-lakṣaṇa-saṃpannā) glowing like a brilliant diamond (vaiḍūrya-maṇi-saṃnibhā); of her rivetingly lovely dark looks (nilotpala-dala-shyamam), of her captivating blue lotus fragrance (nīlotpala-sugandhinī) spread like forest fire far and wide. It set aflame the hearts of countless princes (puruṣendrāṇāṃ cittapramathinī). Even Vyasa , a sage , went into a rapture describing her extraordinary beauty. It was the only time he described his heroine in such detail.

“Eye-ravishing Panchali, black-and-smiling-eyed… Shining coppery carved nails, Soft eye-lashes, Swelling breasts Shapely thighs… Neither short nor tall, neither dark nor pale, with wavy dark-blue hair, eyes like autumn-lotus leaves (padmāyatākṣī), fragrant like the lotus…extraordinarily accomplished, soft-spoken and gentle… Her sweat-bathed (sasvedaṃ) face is lovely, like the blue-lotus (ābhāti padmavat vaktraṃ), like the jasmine (Mallika) ; slim-waisted like the middle of the sacred Vedi (vedimadhyād aninditā), long-haired(dīrghakeśī), pink-lipped (tāmrākṣī), and smooth-skinned. In her presence, the tree leaves stilled for a moment; and, the fires flared but silently . She indeed is a dream incarnated of gods and men alike.”

Drupadasya kule kanyā vedi-madhyād aninditā,nātihrasvā na mahatī-nīlotpala-sugandhinī, padmā-yatākī suśroī asitāyata-mūrdhaj, sarva-lakaa-sapannā vaiūrya-mai-sanibhā, pañcānā puruendrā-ā citta pramathinī raha

ābhāti padmavat vaktraṃ sasvedaṃ mallika ca, vedīmadhyā dīrghakeśī tāmrākṣī nātiromaśā, 

(Adi Parva 1.61.95-97 ;   Sabha Parva : 2.58.36

And among the princes who thirsted her lustily, were the Kuru princes of Hastinapur . She was unwilling to give herself easily even to a worthy one. She insisted on being declared a Veerya-Shulka , a bride to be won by the worthiest and the best in a contest of strength , valor and dexterity in archery which combined in itself skill , grace and strength of mind.

draupadi bride

That was the reason she rejected Karna of low birth even while he was trying to enter the contest at the Swayamvara . That pain and humiliation burned deep into his soul searing his self esteem.  It was like a raw wound that never would heal. Karna later in his life did not let go a slightest opportunity to hurt and humiliate Draupadi. It was her impulsive decision on that fateful day that sowed the seeds for revenge and outrage mounted on her by the Kaurava clan at their court years later.

The outrage of her modesty and the humiliation meted out to her proved to be the nemesis of the Kauravas . Avenging the grievous injury to her honor became a major premise for the war that ended in death and destruction of millions. Yajnaseni , the one born from out of fire, offered her entire being as a flaming sacrifice in that holocaust presided by Krishna . No wonder Draupadi is worshiped even to this day in South India as a personification of Shakthi.

As she ‘ advanced gently and bashfully with a white floral garland in her lovely hands and a sweet smile on her coral-bright lips ‘ she instantly fell in love with that adorable youth of proud bearing , looking fearless and handsome as he emerged out of the crowd of Brahmanas squatted in the far corner of the hall. She was delighted when as he shot down the target with remarkable skill , grace and accuracy.

When it came to light that he was none other than Arjuna, the Pandava prince , she was bemused and she smiled within herself in slight amusement at the irony of fate. She , until then, was on look out for a youth strong and courageous enough to defeat Arjuna who humbled her father just to please his teacher. Now , she just had fallen in love with one that she loved to hate. The fire that just entered into her snubbed out the old fire that was fading away.

The Epic does not discuss Draupadi’s state of mind when asked to be locked in a polyandrous marriage with five brothers. She would perhaps have objected had she so desired. She chose to be silent for whatever reason.

“Then one by one they glanced at Draupadi. Lovely Krsna looked at them. They looked at each other.”

“…So full of respect and affection, the Pandavas all cast their eyes upon the princess of Panchala. And the princess of Panchala also looked at them all. And casting their glances on the illustrious Krishna, those princes looked at one another. And , taking their seats, they began to think of Draupadi alone.

Indeed, after those princes of immeasurable energy had looked at Draupadi, the God of Desire invaded their hearts and continued to crush all their senses. As the lavishing beauty of Panchali who had been modeled by the Creator himself, was superior to that of all other women on earth, it could captivate the heart of every creature.

And Yudhishthira, the son of Kunti, beholding his younger brothers, understood what was passing in their minds. And that bull among men immediately recollected the words of Krishna-Dwaipayana. And the king, then, from fear of a division amongst the brothers, addressing all of them, said, ‘The auspicious Draupadi shall be the common wife of us all.’

The sons of Pandu, then, hearing those words of their eldest brother, began to revolve them in their minds in great cheerfulness”. 

[ Much has been written and discussed about Draupadi’s marriage to five husbands. As said; the Epic does not  explicitly disclose Draupadi’s state of mind and her views on the question  when asked to be locked in a polyandrous marriage with five brothers. She would perhaps have objected had she so desired. She , however, chose to be silent for whatever reason.

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.

Yudhisthira’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, Yudhisthira attempts to clear Drupada’s bewilderment by lamely citing Vedic instances of Marisha-Varkshi (vārkī hy eā 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,  helplessly.


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 gāndhārasvaramūrcchitā
uttamā sarvanārīṇāṃ bhaumāśvī hy abhavat tadā
Vyasyā naitantavāḥ pañca patayaḥ kṣatriyarṣabhāḥ
babhūvuḥ pṛthivīpālāḥ sarvaiḥ samuditā guṇaiḥ


As per Unabridged Southern Editions Of Mahabharata...Kumbakonam Edition


As regards Kunti, it surely does not seem to have been a slip-of tongue when she asked  her sons to share whatever they brought home. Was Kunti really not aware her son won a bride? Was she merely talking of alms her sons brought home? I am not sure Kunti was so gullible.

As mentioned in the post on Kunti, it was a part of her strategy to keep the brothers united and not torn asunder by envy and lust.

Adi Parva (190.29) mentions that Yudhisthira along with the twins slipped out of the Swayamvara as melee set-in when Arjuna , in disguise , won Draupadi. They were already back home by the time the other two brothers along with the newly-won bride Draupadi presented themselves at the door steps. Yudhisthira, by then, would surely have reported to Kunti what transpired at the Swayamvara. While he and the twins were reporting to her , she would have noticed the sparkle and desire in their eyes too. Was that the reason of her charade, asking the brothers to share whatever they had bought home? Though Yudhisthira lamely explains to Drupada that they were honouring the wish of their mother and they were following the custom of their ancestors; Vyasa comments “each had her in his heart”(Adi Parva 193.12)

Kunti showed no signs of regret of her “slip-of-tongue”. She urged Drupada “I fear my words will become as pointless as lies. And if that happens, will I not be tainted with untruth?” What that decision of Kunti did to the Brothers and how that bonded the six together becomes explicit later in the Epic.]

Draupadi biblico de nationale de Francois

(At the Bibliothèque Nationale de France , in Paris, France)

Draupadi  did accomplish that astonishing task of being happily married to five men , remarkably well. Her success was so complete that even Satyabhama, intrigued, desired to share the secret of her success . After performing her duty of presenting each of her husbands with a son , it is said , Draupadi distanced herself from her husbands; and each of them took other wives. That in a way signifies Draupadi and her blue lotus like attitude. She lived amidst sensuality that surrounded her ; but was not contaminated by it. That is the reason Draupadi having five husbands is considered a paragon of chastity , a Kanya.

Draupadi and Satyabhama

That does not mean she grew disinterested in the family affairs. No, she continued to be a very trusted and a vital member of the extended family; and functioned as a sort of effective manager interested in its welfare but not obsessed with its possession. . Draupadi while advising Satyabhāmā  on the ways of managing the household mentions that the complete account of income and expenditure of her husbands was in her grasp and she alone knew the extent of their wealth; she kept track of what each of the many maids attending on Yudhishthira was doing; and she took particular care to discuss with her husbands the decisions they took on various important issues. She took care of their, food,dress and ornaments. She even mentions that Kunti and herself (Draupadi) were consulted on most issues (MBh. 3.222. 38 – 41).

nityam āryām aha kuntī vīrasū satyavādinīm / svaya paricarāmy ekā snānā-acchādana-bhojanaiḥ/ naitām atiśaye jātu vastra-bhūaa-bhojanaiḥ/nāpi parivade cāha pthā pthivī-samām/aṣṭāv agre brāhmaānā sahasrāi sma nityadā / bhuñjate rukmapātrīu yudhiṣṭhira-niveśane / aṣṭāśītisahasrāi snātakā ghamedhinaḥ / triśaddāsīka ekaiko yān bibharti yudhiṣṭhira

It is rather sad that there is not much discussion in the Epic about the motherhood of Draupadi . Her husbands could neither offer the respect and honor that a woman should have as a wife and as a mother; nor could they protect her as a wife should be. All that they succeeded was in making her into a queen.


Draupadi was a victim of her extraordinary beauty that inflamed the desire in the hearts of men. She seemed to attract violence; and, she  wrecked vengeance thereafter. On each of such occasions, she fought the outrage with matchless courage , assurance , skill and presence of mind. She was veritably a goddess of war.

After the second dice game , instead of meekly obeying Yudhistira’s summons , she had the sagacity to send back a query that challenged the very concept of Dharma and the basis of their conduct towards her.  Draupadi threw a question at Duryodhana:

‘Have you won yourself? Or myself? How do you presume that one husband is authorized to stake the wife while she has four other husbands? Moreover, according to Sastras , the deeds of a king who is in a miserable state due to over  indulgence in hunting , drinking , gambling  and hankering after women are  not lawfully  binding . Hence how could the Kauravas  own Panchali ? I am a free woman by all means. ”

Draupadi lashed out at the Kuru clan. She demanded to know – how could Yudhishthira, having lost himself, stake her at all? It was question that none of the elders learned in Dharma who sat there “with lowered eyes like dead men with life-breaths gone” could dare answer.

It was so difficult a question that even Bhishma, the recognized authority on Dharma, when pointedly challenged by Draupadi, confessed his inability to decide the issue –

” What a strong man says often becomes the only dharma. A weak man may have Dharma on his side, but who listens to him? To tell you the truth, I do not know what to say” (Sabha Parva. 69.15-161).

”I am unable to answer your question because Dharma is subtle”, he says :

-na dharma-saukshmyat subhage vivektum śaknomi te prasnam imam yathavat

Dharma is subtle (sukshmam) because its essence is concealed in a dark cavern

dharmasya tattvam nihitath guhaayaam

And , the end of that sordidly disgraceful episode , Draupadi had the courage , the presence of mind and the wit to plant a parting kick at those assembled . In words dipped in sarcasm and indignity she departed punning on “duty ”:

“ One duty remains, which I must now do. Dragged by this mighty hero, I nearly forgot, I was so confused. Sirs, I bow to all of you, all my elders and superiors. Forgive me for not doing so earlier. It was not all my fault, gentlemen of the Sabha.” (Sabha Parva: 02,060.043)


” It is sad; in this  vast assembly here , there are no elders in the true sense (na sā sabhā yatra na santi vṛddhā) . The so called elders are unable say what is Dharma (* na te vṛddhā ye na vadanti dharmam). There is neither Dharma nor Truth here (nāsau dharmo yatra na satyam asti). And, whatever that is here is just blind, dumb and lame (na tat satyaṃ yac chalenānuviddham) – Sbh Parva : 02.060.045

tiṣṭhanti ceme kuravaḥ sabhāyām / īśāḥ sutānāṃ ca tathā snuṣāṇām /samīkṣya sarve mama cāpi vākyaṃ / vibrūta me praśnam imaṃ yathāvat / jitāsmi kiṃ vā na jitāsmy anena /na sā sabhā yatra na santi vṛddhā /na te vṛddhā ye na vadanti dharmam /nāsau dharmo yatra na satyam asti /na tat satyaṃ yac chalenānu viddham

As she rescued her hapless husbands from slavery , even the embittered Karna could not help exclaiming in admiration that none of the world’s renowned beautiful women had accomplished such a feat (yā naḥ śrutā manuṣyeṣu striyo rūpeṇa saṃmatāḥ): like a boat she has rescued her husbands who were drowning in a sea of sorrows

pāñcālī pāṇḍuputrāṇāṃ naur eṣā pāragābhavat (Sabha Parva: 2.64.3).

During the years of exile , Jayadratha an ally of the Kauravas , was devoured by lust as he came across Draupadi in Kamyaka Vana “Leaning against a kadamba tree, holding on to a branch with an upraised hand, her upper garment displaced, she flashes like lightning against clouds or like the flame of a lamp quivering in the night-breeze.” As he grabbed at her , she did not helplessly shriek , lament and cringe as a damsel in distress; instead she kicked the aggressor hard sending him reeling to the ground. She took control of Jayadratha’s chariot and calmly asked a nearby priest to report the incident to her husbands.

Kichaka tormented and kicked her in the court of Virata in presence of Yudhistira who advised her not to create a scene and to quietly go away. She realized that it was only Bhima who could rescue her and avenge her. Vyasa describes in a playful loving narration how she warmed up to Bhima , aroused his love for her and set him up for a fight with Kichaka, who was infatuated with her (sairandhryā kīcakaḥ kāmamohitaḥ) .

bhima draupadi

She finds Bhima at night in his cook’s quarters , twines herself round him as a creeper entwines a massive Shala tree on the banks of the Gomati; as the bride of the sleeping king of beasts clasps him in a dense forest; as an elephant-cow embraces a huge tusker. And as Bhima awakes in Panchali’s arms, she sings into his ears, in a Veena like tone pitched at the Gandhara note, the third in the octave –vīṇeva madhurābhāṣā gāndhāraṃ sādhu mūrcchitā.

veeneva madhuraa-bhaashaa gaandhaaram saadhu moorchchhitaa | abhya-bhaashata paanchaalee bheemasenam-aninditaa || 4. 16 .8 ||

She narrates her misfortunes and her torments. She wails to Bhima “Any woman married to Yudhishthira would be afflicted with many griefs….What does Yudhishthira do? He plays dice…Look at Arjuna… A hero with earrings!” You indeed are my true hero , she coos, I will consume poison and die in your arms , Bhima. She covers his face with her palms chapped and scarred in queen’s service. Mighty Bhima melts like early morning dew at the first light.

“Wolf-waisted foe-crushing Bhima covered his face with the delicate, chapped hands of his wife, And , he burst into tears.”

tatastasyaah’ karau shoonau kinabaddhau vri’kodarah’ | mukham-aaneeya vepantyaa ruroda para veerahaa || 4.19.29 ||

And , That settled the fate of Kichaka.

saa keertayantee duh’khaani bheemasenasya bhaaminee |ruroda shanakaih’ kri’shnaa bheemasenamudeekshatee ||4.19.26||

saa baashpakalayaa vaachaa nih’shvasantee punah’ punah’ |hri’dayam bheemasenasya ghat’t’ayanteedamabraveet ||4.19.27||

naalpam kri’tam mayaa bheema devaanaam kilbisham puraa |abhaagyaa yattu jeevaami martavye sati paand’ava ||4.19.28||

tatastasyaah’ karau shoonau kinabaddhau vri’kodarah’ |mukhamaaneeya vepantyaa ruroda paraveerahaa ||4.19.29||

tau gri’heetvaa cha kaunteyo baashpamutsri’jya veeryavaan |tatah’ paramaduh’khaarta idam vachanamabraveet ||4.19.30||


Throughout the thirteen years of exile, Draupadi did not let her husbands forget how she was outraged and how they were deceitfully deprived of their kingdom. After the years of exile and the year of incognito , when she learnt that her husbands were suing for peace, she was angry and smoldering with rage like a volcano about to erupt. She thundered that she shall tie her loose hair only when bathed in the blood the villain who dared to pull it.

When Krishna visited her , she poured out her heart to him , holding up her serpent-like thick glossy hair and with tearful eyes urged Krishna to recall those tresses when he negotiated for peace with the kauravas. She exhorted that he was bound fourfold to protect her:

“For four reasons, Krishna, you are bound to protect me ever: I’m related, I’m renowned, I’m your sakhi and you rule over all.” (Vana Parva 10.127).

In case even he did not care to help her, she declared that her five sons led by Abhimanyu and her old father and brothers would avenge her .

Krishna could scarcely say no to her. He promised to annihilate her tormentors “Consider those you disfavor As already dead!… The Himavant hills may move, the Earth shatter In a hundred pieces, heaven collapse; My promise stands (satyam te pratijaanaami kri’shne)… You will see your enemies killed.” (Udyoga Parva: 80.46-49)

The mighty-armed Kesava then spoke, comforting her in these words, ‘Soon wilt thou, O Krishna, behold the ladies of Bharata’s race weep as thou dost. Even they, O timid one, will weep like thee, their kinsmen and friends being slain. They with whom, O lady, thou art angry, have their kinsmen and warriors already slain. With Bhima and Arjuna and the twins, at Yudhishthira’s command, and agreeably to fate, and what hath been ordained by the Ordainer, I will accomplish all this. Their hour having arrived, the sons of Dhritarashtra, if they do not listen to my words, will surely lie down on the earth turned as morsels of dogs and jackals. The mountains of Himavat might shift their site, the Earth herself might spilt into a hundred fragments, the firmament itself with its myriads of stars might fall down, still my words can never be futile. Stop thy tears, I swear to thee, O Krishna, soon wilt thou see thy husbands, with their enemies slain, and with prosperity crowning them.'”

aham cha tat karishyaami Bheema-arjuna-yamaih-saha |yudhisht’hira-niyogena daivaachcha vidhinirmitaat ||5.80.46||

dhaartaraasht’raah’ kaalapakvaa na che chchhri’nvanti me vachah’ | sheshyante nihataa bhoomau shvashri’gaalaadaneekri’taah’ ||5.80.47||

chaleddhi himavaan jshailo medinee shatadhaa bhavet | dyauh’ patechcha sanakshatraa na me mogham vacho bhavet ||5.80.48||

satyam te pratijaanaami kri’shne baashpo-nigri’hyataam | hataamitraan-jshriyaa yuktaan-achiraad-drakshyase pateen ||5.80.49||


Death danced its naked Tandava as never before. Hundreds of thousands perished every day in the eighteen-day war. Brothers killed brothers, fathers killed sons, uncles butchered nephews and nephews slew uncles, masters and disciples did away with each other. And strangers massacred strangers. The wails of mothers, daughters, sisters, wives and children rent the skies. Jackals and vultures tore apart the slain men and carcass of animals. Ghouls and cannibals danced in devilish delight and feasted on the slaughtered.

The worst was yet to come, Ashvatthama heinously slaughtered Draupadi’s sons and brothers while they were asleep. Even at that most agonizing and heartbreaking moment Draupadi had not lost the sense of life , humanity and compassion. When Ashvatthama was brought before her , bound in ropes as an animal , and all were thirsting for his blood , Draupadi had the nobility of heart to ask her husbands to let him go . she said :

“I know how much it hurts to loose sons . I cannot bear to see that vriddha matha , the aged mother of Ashvatthama , endure the agony and grief of loosing her only son in her old age. Let him go for the sake of his old mother. Let her not cry as I do now.”


Draupadi is often referred to as Nathavathi_Anathavat, perhaps to express the agony of Draupadi having five husbands but with none to protect her. She was married to five yet she was all alone , unprotected , uncared and unloved. She always had about her a certain loneliness . She once poured her heart to Krishna :

And wiping her eyes and sighing frequently she said these words angrily and in a choked voice, ‘Husbands, or sons, or friends, or brothers, or father, have I none! Nor have I thee, O Madhusudana, for ye all, beholding me treated so cruelly by inferior foes, sit still unmoved!

My grief at Karna’s ridicule is incapable of being assuaged! On these grounds I deserve to be ever protected by thee, O Keshava, viz., our relationship, thy respect for me, our friendship, and thy lordship over me.

“No husband have I, nor son, nor brother nor father. So much so, O Madhusudana, that even you are not mine”

 naiva me patayah’ santi n putraa Madhusoodana | na bhraataro na cha pitaa naiva tvam na cha baandhavaah’ ||4.12.112||

ye maam viprakri’taam kshudrairupekshadhvam vishokavat | na hi me shaamyate duh’kham karno yatpraahasattadaa ||4.12.113||

As Shri Pradip Bhattacharya said

“ Yudhishthira pledges her like chattel at dice. .. Draupadi finds her five husbands discarding her repeatedly. Each of them takes other wives . . Draupadi stands quite apart from her five husbands not one of them not even Sahadeva of whom she took care with maternal solicitude, nor her favorite Arjuna tarries by her side when she falls and lies dying on the Himalayan slopes.. Yajnaseni leaves the world all by herself, nathavati anathavat.”

lotus blue

There was much that was common among the three women – Sathyavathi , Kunti and Draupadi. All the three were described as dark or dusky emanating a captivating body odor .All three were also described as amorous lovers .They were the celebration of women as “sexually powerful magical beings” in the words of Naomi Wolf . They were all women of substance and leaders of men.

All the three had a will of their own, they wielded power and influence ; but each in her own manner. Sathyavathi , the Yojanaghandha was sensuous and manipulative. Kunthi treated with much respect in the Epic , was a heroic mother who did not seek anything for herself. Draupadi too did not seek anything for herself. She had to live with five men ; while Kunthi had only to endure momentary involvements . Draupadi as a wife tended to and inspired her men though in return got little or nothing . Yajnaseni the one born out of fire , offered herself as a sacrifice in the fire of life.

Kunti and her daughter-in-law Draupadi, in a strange way, endured similar pain and had more in common . Pandu among all the assembled royalty was Kunti’s chosen heart – desire (mano- kaamana). Yet, soon thereafter she had to share nay lose her husband to her co-wife, younger and  bashful. Draupadi could not  be Arjuna’s sole love. Not only that she had to be the wife of four others but also that Arjuna and his brothers each took many wives. The marriages of Kunti and Draupadi, to say the least, were over crowded. Finally, If Draupadi was born in fire Kunti dies in fire.

It is said , Sathyavati with the aid of Vyasa brought into being a dynasty the one branch of which was nurtured and carried forward by Kunthi while its other branch was annihilated because of Draupadi. But how fair is it blame Draupadi for the ruin that the Kauravas brought upon themselves?

lotus blue 2

There is a well-known Sanskrit stanza which exhorts the virtues of a set of five Kanyas , virgins. It says , contemplation on the virtues of these five destroys the greatest sins:

Ahalya Draupadi Kunti Tara Mandodari tatha  /  panchakanya smare-nityam mahapataka nashakam.

Included among the five virgins are Kunti and Draupadi. Strangely , both knew more than one man and were mothers too. Why then did our ancients address them as Kanyas? And why were they so highly regarded?

They were perhaps not referring to their bodies but to the state of their being. They did what they did , not out of desire or out of attachment . It was perhaps to suggest they were psychologically pure and untainted. They learnt to sublimate their ego to reach a higher self. They were independent women enjoying an identity of their own. The status of Kanya perhaps also referred to the way they asserted their independence.

M. Esther Harding  mentions in Woman’s Mysteries [Rider, 1971, p. 125- 126] “the woman who is psychologically virgin 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.”

[Please check a detailed report posted by Smt. Saroj Thakur on the discussion about Panchkanyas of Indian epics.]


Indebted to

Shri Pradip Bhattacharya


Prof. P Lal for his translations of  Mahabharata


Posted by on September 7, 2012 in Mahabharata


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The Three Women In Mahabharata (2 Of 3) – Kunti

The men play dice and wage wars in Mahabharata , as anywhere else ; but it is the women who wield power and influence. 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 in particular who wielded power in more than one form were Sathyavathi the dusky fragrant fisher girl who became the queen , Pritha the fair maiden who reluctantly became the mother of five sons and Krishnaa , daughter of the fire , Druapadi. The Epic is interwoven with their remarkable sagacity in exercise of their power and leadership. Some say the Epic , in a way , is a study in use and abuse of power.

These women displayed that the truly powerful do not cling to power. They knew when and how to wield it but also, even more important, to when not to use it



Pritha, wide eyed and  beautiful , the firstborn of Devameedha Shurasena of the Vrishni Yadavas who ruled over Mathura , had a rather unusual childhood. Her father had given her away even before she was born . He gifted her  to his good friend and childless cousin Kunthibhoja , a Bhoja Yadava of the Kunti Kingdom. Soon after Pritha was born, she was adopted by Kunthibhoja ; and, since then she came to be known as Kunti.

After her arrival at his palace, Kunthibhoja was blessed with children. He considered Kunti his lucky charm; and, doted on her . In the meantime, Shurasena had a son; and, he named him Vasudeva, who years later married Devaki of Mathura ; and , had a son by her, named Krishna Vasudeva.

Pritha was a happy child; and , yet yearned for a mother in Knthibhoja’s sprawling mansion. She found none to confide her fears , hopes and anxieties. That feeling of being left adrift , unguided and unwanted rankled deep within her for long years.

Kunthibhoja placed the nubile girl Pritha at the disposal of the eccentric sage Durvasa ; and, exhorted her not to neglect any service either out of pride in her good-looks or in her status . He cautioned her against displeasing the quick-tempered sage , lest she bring dishonor to her clan and to herself . That fear of bringing disgrace to her clan haunted her until late in her life. That fear was to become a premise for the tragedy of her life and of the Epic.

The irascible Durvasa , for once , was pleased . He gifted Pritha with a mantra that would summon , at her will , any god . The girl , a short time thereafter , out of sheer child-like curiosity tested whether the mantra would really work .To her amazement it did work. Lo and behold .. ! the resplendent Sun presented himself ; but he refused to go away unsatisfied . He cajoled the virgin princess Pritha to consent for sex. It was then that she took her first real decision . Pritha asked the Sun to assure that her virginity remained unimpaired even after childbirth ; and,  that her son would resemble his father in glory.

kunti by Giampaolo Tomassetti

It was her clan’s honor that came in the way of Kunti owning her firstborn. Kunti was a princess and a queen to be. In contrast , Satyavathi a fisher-woman was not inhibited by qualms of clan honor etc. ; and,  she was not scared or ashamed of being known as an unwed -mother.

Kunti then took that most accursed decision of her life – to set adrift her son , her firstborn down the river Ashva , so that King Kunthibhoja , her adopted father and his clan would not have to hang their head in shame. But she regretted abandoning her child , in silent grief and guilt .When she spoke of that years later , it was rather too late; and, the die of death had been cast; her words sounded hollow bereft of authenticity of mother’s love.

Kunti, for a short while broke the sequence of Bharata – brides forced into unwilling marriages ; but sadly , she could not break the sequence of Bharata Kulavadhus forced to beget sons out of wedlock.

Her joy in marriage was short-lived. She was sad and hurt for a number of reasons. Soon after her marriage , the more attractive Madri was brought in as the second wife of Pandu , her husband. Pandu thereafter not merely distanced himself from kunti ; but also because of his disability forced kunti to beget sons out of the wedlock , by soliciting a worthy stranger. The tragedy of Pandu was that he was consumed by lust; but, was incapable of quenching that raging fire  .”Addiction to lust killed my mother’s husband, though the virtuous Shantanu gave him birth. And though truth-speaking Vyasa is my father, lust consumes me too .”

The only solace for Kunti in that unsatisfying triangular relation was Madri, a woman who came into her life as a rival ; but , soon became her younger sister and a loving friend. Kunti , later in in her life, recounted the three blessings in her life : her friend Madri ; her sons of matchless valor ; and, the most endearing of all , her nephew Krishna.


When Pandu forced her to beget children for him by soliciting a worthy person, she recoiled in horror and flatly refused saying : “Not even in touch will I be embraced by another “. She was scared of her past and wanted desperately to move away from that shame.

Pandu however cajoled and reasoned with her that she would merely be following a sanctioned custom of the Northern Kurus (Uttara-kuru) – uttareṣu ca rambhoru kuruṣv adyāpi vartate. And, he even cited the examples of his mother and her sister.

He went on to explain :

“Now will I make known to thee the true essence of dharma , listen unto me, the beautiful eyed one (cārulocane), the ancient dharma perceived by the lofty-minded knowers of it. In former times, as is well known, women were left unhindered (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. (kāmacāra vihāriṇyaḥ svatantrāś ); O sweet-smiling one, neither man nor woman knew jealousy (Irshya nasti narl-nara-naam); and, were free from fear, love  and anger (kāma-dveṣa-vivarjitāḥ). 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

taṃ caiva dharmaṃ paurāṇaṃ .

This was the moral order laid down by the rule of conduct; it was honored by the great Rishis through observance, and to-day is still honored among the Uttarakurus.  For, this is the eternal law that shows favor to women

purāṇam ṛṣibhir dṛṣṭaṃ dharmavidbhir mahātmabhiḥ.

But, sadly, the barrier of to-day was set up in our world short while ago .  Learn this now, O lotus eyed (kamala-patrākṣi),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.” Adi Parva (113.3-20)

3 atha tv imaṃ pravakṣyāmi dharmaṃ tv etaṃ nibodha me
      purāṇam ṛṣibhir dṛṣṭaṃ dharmavidbhir mahātmabhiḥ
  4 anāvṛtāḥ kila purā striya āsan varānane
      kāmacāra vihāriṇyaḥ svatantrāś cārulocane
  5 tāsāṃ vyuccaramāṇānāṃ kaumārāt subhage patīn
      nādharmo ‘bhūd varārohe sa hi dharmaḥ purābhavat
  6 taṃ caiva dharmaṃ paurāṇaṃ tiryag-yonigatāḥ prajāḥ
      adyāpy anuvidhīyante kāma-dveṣa-vivarjitāḥ
      purāṇadṛṣṭo dharmo ‘yaṃ pūjyate ca maharṣibhiḥ
  7 uttareṣu ca rambhoru kuruṣv adyāpi vartate
      strīṇām anugraha karaḥ sa hi dharmaḥ sanātanaḥ
  8 asmiṃs tu loke nacirān maryādeyaṃ śucismite
      sthāpitā yena yasmāc ca tan me vistarataḥ śṛṇu
  9 babhūvoddālako nāma maharṣir iti naḥ śrutam
      śvetaketur iti khyātaḥ putras tasyābhavan muniḥ
  10 maryādeyaṃ kṛtā tena mānuṣeṣv iti naḥ śrutam
     kopāt kamalapatrākṣi yadarthaṃ tan nibodha me
 11 śvetaketoḥ kila purā samakṣaṃ mātaraṃ pituḥ
     jagrāha brāhmaṇaḥ pāṇau gacchāva iti cābravīt

He begged her “Sweet lady, I fold my palms joining the tips of my lotus-leaf rosy fingers and I implore you listen to me , the auspicious one (śhubhe).”

tathā raktāṅguli talaḥ padmapatra nibhaḥ śubhe /  prasādārthaṃ mayā te ‘yaṃ śirasy abhyudyato añjaliḥ (MBh.1.113.29)

She could not let him know that she already had a son ; she could also not refuse his request altogether. She tactfully and tacitly gave in “Best of Bharatas ! Great adharma it is for a husband to ask repeatedly a favor; shouldn’t a wife anticipate his wishes”.

After she bore three sons and when the greedy husband urged Kunti to have more sons, she refused to abuse that rare power for sake of self-indulgence . At his request she passed on one mantra to his favorite Madri. Again , when he asked for more mantras for use by Madri , Kunti angrily retorted “ Don’t come to me again, my lord, saying give her the mantra .”

Kunti yearned for a true love ; but, was hurt and disappointed .She envied Madri as she ascended the funeral pyre with Pandu’s corpse; and cried out , ” Princess of Bahlika ! You are fortunate indeed , I never had the chance to see his face radiant in intercourse.” She begged Madri a favor “Could I bring up your children as mine” Madri the true friend she was cried out to Kunti “You are blessed. There is none like you; you are my light, my guide, most respect-worthy. Greater in status, purer in virtue.” How true this description was of Kunti !

The years that followed Pandu’s death were truly of great distress . Poverty , insecurity and shame haunted her and her sons . Unaided by the Vrishnis or the Bhojas , Kunti alone protected and guided her sons from the treacheries plotted by the sons of Gandhari .Her lone trustworthy contact in Hastinapura was Vidura the son of Ambika’s maid.  He too offered help covertly, in fear of Kurus. It was with his help that Kunti managed to rescue her sons and herself from the arson  at Varanavruta.

[A question that usually comes up is: why kunti could not get (seek) assistance from the Vrishnis or the Bhojas (both being Yadavas – Kunti’s maternal clan). This question has not been answered clearly.  I do not know the exact reason that forced Kunti to fight it out alone. However, I surmise the following context of those times could provide some clues to why Kunti had to brave her troubles alone. I could be wrong. Yet;..

At that time the entire north India as also the Yadava country was in turmoil. They were under repeated attacks  by Jarasandha of Magadha (Bihar) who formed a confederation consisting Dantavakra of Karusha and Sishupala of Chedi in central India, Bhishmaka of Vidarbha in the south-west, Kalayavana  beyond the western borders, the ruler of Kashi (Benares), Paundraka Vasudeva of Pundra (Bengal) in the east, Naraka of Pragjyotishapura (Assam) in the north east. Jarasandha thus established a tyrannical supremacy over the other regions.

For fear of Jarasandha and his hordes, the king of the Salwayana tribe with their brethren and followers such as the southern Panchalas and the eastern Kosalas all fled to the country of the Kuntis. Similarly, the Matsyas (Rajasthan area) and the Sannyastapadas, overcome with fear, fled into the southern country. And so did the others, alarmed at the power of jarasandha, left their kingdoms and fled in all directions.

Jarasandha was particularly angry with the establishment at Mathura and the Yadavas in general, because his son-in-law Kamsa had been slain by Yadava-Krishna. Jarasandha, in rage and retaliation, attacked  and  imprisoned   as many as eighty-six princes, it is said.

Krishna , in order to save the Yadavas from being enslaved , persuaded his clan leaders to abandon Mathura; and, to re-establish themselves in the fortified city of Dwaraka , on the western seashore. It is said; the eighteen tribes of Yadavas , including  the Bhojas,  with the Surasenas, the Bhadrakas, the Yodhas, the Salwas, the Patachchavas, the Susthalas, the Mukuttas, and the Kulindas, along with the Kuntis, all fled towards the west , for  fear of jarasandha.

Meanwhile, Bhishma who then was the regent of the Kingdom of Hasthinapura found it wiser and safer to appease; and, to make truce with Jarasandha. Srimad Bhagavatha Purana even mentions that some troops of Hasthinapura assisted Jarasandha and accompanied the Magadha army’s onslaught on Mathura.

It , therefore , appears that during the time in question, Hasthinapura region was comparatively safe. Further, all the Yadavas clans had abandoned Mathura and fled to Dwaraka in the far west.  Therefore none of Kunti’s maternal-clans was near her nor was in a position to help her.   It is also likely that Kunti might have reasoned that the fate and future of her sons was tied to Hasthinapura, over which they had to assert their right. And, Kunti and her sons, therefore , had to be in Hasthinapura region. Being closer to the  Yadava clans or their support, in any case, was not of great consequence.]

When Bhima was about to drive away the infatuated Hidamba , Kunti had the presence of mind and foresight to spot an opportunity that came her way for forging a new alliance;  and , she grasped it by advising Bhima to marry the love thirsty girl –

” I can see no way of taking fit revenge for the terrible injustices that Duryodhana has done us. A grave problem faces us. You know Hidimba loves you…Have a son by her. I wish it. He will work for our welfare. My son, I do not want a no from you. I want your promise now, in front of both of us.”


She realized that her friendless , shelter-less and impoverished sons badly needed supporters and allies if they had to survive , fight back their tormentors ; and regain the  lost kingdom and honor.

Thanks to Kunti’s foresight , that union of Bhima and Hidamba not merely gained for the Pandavas the support of the Rakshasas during their exile ; but also saved the life of Arjuna later in the Kurukshetra war. It was again Kunti who instructed her first grandchild to fight for Pandavas “You are one of the Kurus . To me , you are like Bhima himself. You are the eldest son of the Pandavas. Therefore, you should help them .” Ghatotkacha, son of Hidamba, saved Arjuna from Karna’s infallible weapon in the war, at the cost of his own life.

Earlier , Bhima, at the instance of Kunti, befriended Naga Aryaka , her father’s maternal grand father. Later during the years of exile, Arjuna as advised by his mother forged alliance with Nagas , Manipuris and Yadavas of Dwaraka (through Subhadra). Kunti had the foresight to build alliances that would someday come in handy .

She had the wisdom to educate her sons in proper use of power. At Ekachakranagara, when Yudhisthira opposed sending Bhima to fight Bakasura the monstrous eater , Kunti retorted rather sternly “ I am not foolish; don’t think me ignorant; I am not being selfish. I know exactly what I am doing. This is an act of dharma. Yudhishthira, two benefits will follow from this act ; one, we will repay a Brahmin and two, we will gain moral merit. It is a king’s duty to protect. It is his dharma.” That was the only other occasion that Yudhisthira opposed his mother .

After the Baka episode , Kunti and her sons shifted from the Brahmin’s house to a potter’s house in the country of Panchala ; that was farther down in social hierarchy. That perhaps was a part of her way of bringing up her sons; to expose them to experiences at all levels of living. Kunti’s maturity, the ability to observe life , to learn from experience and arrive at a swift decision, sets her apart from other characters in the Epic , save Krishna.

The move to Panchala at the instance of Vyasa was to win Drupada’s daughter and to form an alliance with the Panchalas. That , again , was a part of her long-term strategy to win back the lost kingdom. She had the foresight and sagacity to calculate that a fight with the Kauravas would at sometime be inevitable , while no others foresaw the battle even as a possibility. She tried to build alliances around that possibility .

Much has been written about Kunti asking her sons to share whatever they brought home and which led to the five brothers marrying one woman , Draupadi. Was Kunti really not aware her son won a bride ?Was she merely talking of alms her sons brought home? I am not sure Kunti was so gullible.

Adi Parva (190.29) mentions that Yudhisthira along with the twins slipped out of the Swayamvara as melee set-in when Arjuna , in disguise , won Draupadi. They were already back home by the time the other two brothers along with the newly-won bride Draupadi presented themselves at the door steps. Yudhisthira , by then, would surely have reported to Kunti what transpired at the Swayamvara. While he and the twins were reporting to her , she would have noticed the sparkle and desire in their eyes too. Was that the reason of her charade , asking the brothers to share whatever they had bought home? Though Yudhisthira lamely explains to Drupada that they were honoring the wish of their mother and they were following the custom of their ancestors ; Vyasa comments “each had her in his heart”(Adi Parva 193,12)

– drupadasyā atmajā rājaṃs te bhindyantāṃ tataḥ paraiḥ

Kunti showed no signs of regret of her “slip-of-tongue”. She urged Drupada “I fear my words will become as pointless as lies. And if that happens, will I not be tainted with untruth?”. What that decision of Kunti did to the Brothers and how that bonded the six together becomes explicit later in the Epic.

Kunti Draupadi by Giampaolo Tomassetti

[Giampaolo Tomassetti, the famous Italian artist, studied  the Mahabharata  Epic for over a period of five years. The gifted artist took about 12  years to  illustrate the epic ]

The respect and implicit obedience her sons displayed was a tribute to Kunti and her motherhood. It was something that Gandhari could not achieve. Truly, Kunti is a remarkable picture of maternal heroism created by Vyasa.

[ Please read : Gandhari the lonely Queen ]

Indeed, the only occasion when her sons did not consult her was before playing the second dice game. They did not even meet their mother before leaving Indraprastha, let alone seek her advice. And , what a disaster that turned out to be !!

Game of Dice by Giampaolo Tomassetti

The Draupadi Swayamvara marks a watershed in the Epic . With that , Kunti gracefully recedes to background and Draupadi takes over the care of Kunti’s sons. It also marks the entry of Krishna in to the Epic and into the lives of the Pandavas . 


Krishna was another of those who wielded enormous influence ; but never occupied a seat of power. It is only the presence of Krishna that elevates Mahabharata into an Epic of great significance; else it would merely have petered out into a listless tale of internecine fratricide.


Finally , Kunti in order to ensure safety of her sons , humiliated herself and revealed the “misdeed” of her youth. She begged Karna to join his brothers. Though Karna rejected her , he fell into an abyss of indecision.

Some commentators have sought to justify Kunti’s prolonged silence by saying that Kunti had long realized the futility of letting know Karna his birth-secret; and she rightly deduced that doing so would  cause more humiliation , suffering  and harm to Pandavas. Because, Kunti by then knew very well of Karna’s intense loyalty and submission to Duryodhana; and,  she calculated  if   Yudishthira promptly hands over the throne to his new-found elder brother Karna the latter would undoubtedly surrender it to his master Duryodhana.  That would not in any manner help Pandavas in regaining their heritage; instead it would worsen their position. Kunti, therefore, made the heroic choice of keeping the secret as long as it was possible although it caused her much anguish and agony.

Shri Pradip Bhattacharya adds:’ Karna’s grossly limited dharma is one of blind adherence to his benefactor regardless of the ethics of Duryodhana’s actions….She (Kunti), in contrast, deliberately chose the greater good, that of establishing a new kingdom founded on dharma under her nephew Krishna’s leadership by the Pandavas. Her   acknowledging Karna as her son in haste would only have strengthened the forces of adharma. To describe Kunti’s choice as ‘blotting her record as a mother’ is surely unjustified’.

Kunti all her life acted alone , unaided and unguided; except perhaps with tacit support of Vidura .Whatever decisions she took , they were on her own. She guided and protected her sons in every way she could and guarded them amid all the venal politics of the Kuru court .

When her sons went into exile Kunti stayed back in Hastinapura perhaps to remind the blind king of his guilt. She had not given up the fight. When Krishna came to Hastinapura on a peace mission she was terribly upset and angry . She chided Krishna and asked him to urge Yudhisthira to fight for his rights as a Kshatriya must. She asked Yudhisthira through Krishna “ Can anything be more humiliating than that your mother, friendless and alone, should have to eat others food ? Strong-armed one, recover the ancestral paternal kingdom by use of gentleness, dissension, gifts, force or negotiation. Follow the dharma of the kings, redeem your family honor. Do not, with your brothers, watch your merits waste away.”

She chided and motivated her sons. She delivered the final punch kick “The princess of Panchala followed all dharmas, yet in your presence they mocked her , how can you ever forgive this insult? The kingdom lost did not hurt me, the defeat at dice did not hurt me; the exile of my sons did not hurt me so much as the humiliation of Draupadi weeping in the sabha as they mocked her. Nothing more painful than that insult”

Flare up, even if briefly, like tinduka-wood. Do not smolder away in billowing fire -less smoke. (Udyoga Parva, 05,131.013

alātaṃ tindukasyeva muhūrtam api vijvala

After the war she decided to retreat into the forest along with the blind king Dritharastra , his blindfolded queen Gandhari and Vidura. When Bhima , in anguish cried out , why she urged them to fight and wade through the rivers of blood and guts of their relatives, if she had to go away leaving them behind after everything was done.

Kunti consoles Bhima the strongest of her sons by saying that she inspired them to fight not because she desired for a kingdom or for a palace;  but, because she desired an honorable life for her sons and that they should not live forever   in shame as slaves.

In many ways, Kunti’s life is remarkable . Gifted away by her father even before she was born, callously placed by her foster father at the mercy of an eccentric sage she fell a victim of a god’s lust,. An impotent husband forced her to beget children from others thrice over. She yearned for love but received none . In her days of utter misery neither her father nor her foster-father cared to help her. She guided and protected her sons virtually alone . The only friends she had were Madri who died too young and Vidura the helpless bystander. Her true confidant was her nephew Krishna.

Kunti comes across as a brave and a wise woman grievously hurt and disappointed in love. She was not a woman cast in the conventional mold . She was rather lonely , fighting to protect her sons amidst the encircling treachery and hatred. She had the wisdom to educate her sons in proper use of power. She guided them along the path of Dharma . She not merely anticipated a war but willed it to happen in order to regain honor and the lost kingdom for her sons . Towards that end she built and sustained political alliances with foresight and sagacity . She had the wisdom to recede from active scene when it was prudent to do so .When her mission was accomplished she had the detachment and strength of mind to renounce the fruits of her efforts and to walk away into forest and into fire… Truly, Kunti is a remarkable picture of maternal heroism created by Vyasa.


 ..Next …Draupadi


Posted by on September 7, 2012 in Mahabharata


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The Three Women In Mahabharata (1 Of 3 )- Sathyavathi

The men play dice and wage wars in Mahabharata , as anywhere else ; but it is the women who wield power and influence. 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 in particular who wielded power in more than one form were Sathyavathi the dusky fragrant fisher girl who became the queen , Pritha the fair maiden who reluctantly became the mother of five sons and Krishnaa , daughter of the fire , Druapadi. The Epic is interwoven with their remarkable sagacity in exercise of their power and leadership. Some say the Epic, in a way , is a study in use and abuse of power.

These women displayed that the truly powerful do not cling to power. They know when and how to wield it ; but , even more importantly, when not to use it.


Satyavathi in her relentless drive to accomplish ; and more importantly, to retain power, manipulated the lives of persons around her. She tried her hardest. Most of her schemes did not turn out well. Towards the end of her life , she was angry , sad and disillusioned . But, what was worse was that her progenies were left to suffer the wrath of her greed . They reaped a bitter harvest.


As Kali, the dusky nubile fisher-girl smelling of fish, was transformed into musk fragrant Satyavathi , she took Hasthinapur by storm. The queen to-be , she insisted her blood alone be heir to the throne of Hasthinapur. With that , she caused the prince Devavrata to turn into Bishma , who then locked himself in the shell of his self-imposed vows;  lost the sensation of being alive; and, distanced himself from life; and  yet he chose to cling on to mere existence. 



Her aged husband died leaving her with two sons. Both her sons later died in their youth without producing an heir to the throne. The elder one died valiantly waging a lone battle; and , the other was too young and consumptive. The younger son too died in his youth of poor health and overindulgence:  sarvāsām eva nārīṇāṃ citta-pramathano ‘bhavat /  tābhyāṃ saha samāḥ sapta viharan pṛthivīpatiḥ (MBh 01,096.056-57 )

He left behind two voluptuous widows in the prime of their youth; “Both were tall, black wavy hair. Fingernails and toe nails painted red, pointed. Hips round and full. Swelling and large breasts – bṛhatī śyāme nīlakuñcita mūrdhaje raktatuṅga nakhopete pīnaśreṇi payodhare  (MB.1.96.54)

The young Vicitravirya, driven by passion, became a victim of his own lust- vicitravīryas taruṇo yakṣmāṇaṃ samapadyata  suhṛdāṃ yatamānānām āptaiḥ saha cikitsakaiḥ  jagāmāstam ivādityaḥ kauravyo yamasādanam (Adi parva, 96.57-58).

The dead prince had produced no heir to the throne. 

Satyavati then tried to entice her stepson Bhishma by offering to release him from his vow of celibacy; and, asked him to marry the widows of his half-brother and produce sons. A piqued Bishma however sternly refused to oblige her “Let doom overtake the world ! Immortality cannot tempt me, nor lordship of the three worlds .. ! I will not break the vow.”

She was unwilling to accept defeat. She did not want it said that it was because of her , the great line of the Bharatas came to an end. Hungry for grandsons, desperate to propagate her lineage , Sathyavathi summoned Vyasa, born to her by Parasara , out of wedlock; and, ordered him to produce sons from his half-brother’s widows through Niyoga *.

[*an accepted ancient  practice, in which a woman (whose husband is either incapable of fatherhood or has died without fathering a child) could request and appoint a man for helping her bear a child , in order to continue the dynasty.]

Vyasa an ascetic , who never lived in the family of his mother’s husband, shocked , refused to obey his mother’s orders. He even counseled his mother that preserving the dynasty by adopting such heinous means was improper (VI.24.46-48).

Satyavati desperately argued that the directives of elders, though apparently improper , ought to be obeyed ; and, such compliance attracted no blame, particularly as it would remove the sorrow of a grieving mother.

It was when Bhishma stepped in and urged Vyasa to obey his mother that he gave in reluctantly; and, agreed to engage in what he described as “this disgusting task” (VI.24.56).

Vyasa wondered whether such progeny born of out of wedlock “vyabhicharodbhava “ VI.25.28) could ever be a source of happiness for him. How prophetic were his words…!

Vyasa asked his mother that the widows be on a year-long vow and austerity so that they purified themselves of the lust they were tainted with through seven years of over indulgence Satyavathi was in a hurry for a heir ; and, was in no mood to wait. She ordered Vyasa to be done with his task at the earliest.

vyasa satyavati

The helpless Vyasa gave in to his mother’s demands; and said – ‘If I am to give unto my brother children so unseasonably, then let the ladies bear my ugliness. That in itself shall, in their case, be the austerest of penances. If the princess of Kosala can bear my strong odor, my ugly and grim visage, my attire and body, she shall then conceive an excellent child.'(Sambhava Parva; Section CV)

Satyavati then went to her daughter-in-law and seeing her in private spoke to her these words of beneficial and virtuous import, ‘O princess of Kosala, listen to what I say. It is consistent with virtue. The dynasty of the Bharatas hath become extinct from my misfortune. Beholding my affliction and the extinction of his paternal line, the wise Bhishma, impelled also by the desire of perpetuating our race, hath made me a suggestion, which suggestion, however, for its accomplishment is dependent on thee. Accomplish it, O daughter, and restore the lost line of the Bharatas. O thou of fair hips, bring thou forth a child equal in splendor unto the chief of the celestials. He shall bear the onerous burden of this our hereditary kingdom.’

Thus, Satyavathi, in a way,   tricked and manipulated her widowed daughters-in-law into believing that the young Bhishma would be coming to them.

Thereafter, splendidly decked, and having bathed on the fourth day after the monthly cleansing, the eldest first awaits the appointed father of her future child.

When suddenly Vyasa barged into the bedroom with his flowing red locks, ash covered dark body and fiercely glowing eyes , they were totally unprepared ; and were  aghast and shocked beyond belief . It was in that state one woman closed her eyes in fright ; and, the other went pale in horror.(Section CVI)

The result was that one had a son born blind and manipulative ; the other had a son pale and near-impotent , hankering for sex.

Even then Satyavathi had learned nothing. She wanted healthy grandsons at any cost. Yet, again she talked Ambika into having sex with Vyasa. Ambika , had not overcome her fright of Vyasa , yet. She therefore deceived Satyavathi ; and, this time sent in her maid instead, who without fear and aversion accepted the sage. Their child was the virtuous Vidura, possibly the sole true grandson of Satyavati. She arranged to educate him along with his half-brothers . She assigned Vidura to assist and guide the blind Dritharastra. 

Vidura, too, however, died childless. Satyavathi’s other grandson, Pandu died just as his putative father Vicitravirya, without having been able to father progeny.

After her grandson Pandu’s death, Satyavati realized how in vain were her efforts ; and, meekly obeyed her son Vyasa when he advised her not to be a witness to the suicide of her race. “The green years of the earth are gone. . . . . Do not be a witness to the suicide of your own race.” Vyasa asked her to leave the court and retire to the forest with her daughters-in-law. She accepted Vyasa’s advice and retired gracefully to the forest, unlike the obsessed Bhishma who chose to linger on aimlessly.

Kuru Vamsha tree

To an extent, Satyavati succeeded in using her manipulative power and accomplishing what she desired . But that did not take her far; as she had not learnt when not to use power. She had also not learnt to value reason and intuition.

In her progeny-hungry lifetime, driven mainly by an obsessive desire to retain power, Satyavati saw her husband, her two sons and one grandson die; the eldest grandson born blind; the youngest one not qualified to be king, being base-born, despite being the only fully healthy and virtuous issue. The middle one dared death for sex and succumbed. “Passion overpowered him , it seemed that he wanted to commit suicide, as it were. First he lost his sense, Then, clouded by lust, he sought the loss of his life “. (Adi parva, 01,116.007- 011 )

.. the monarch, overpowered by passion, forcibly sought the embraces of Madri, as if he wished to put an end to his own life. His reason, thus beguiled by the great Destroyer himself by intoxicating his senses, was itself lost with his life. And the Kuru king Pandu, of virtuous soul, thus succumbed to the inevitable influence of Time, while united in intercourse with his wife – MBh. Adi Parva-Section 125 – Sambhava Parva continued – Translation of  Sri Kesri Mohan Ganguly

kāmaṃ kāmabalāt kṛtaḥ / tata enāṃ balād rājā nijagrāha rahogatām vāryamāṇas tayā devyā visphurantyā yathābalam/ sa tu kāmaparītātmā taṃ śāpaṃ nānvabudhyata  mādrīṃ maithuna dharmeṇa gacchamāno balād iva / jīvitāntāya kauravyo manmathasya vaśaṃgataḥ  śāpajaṃ bhayam utsṛjya jagāmaiva balāt priyām / tasya kāmātmano buddhiḥ sākṣāt kālena mohitā   saṃpramathyendriya grāmaṃ pranaṣṭā saha cetasā / sa tayā saha saṃgamya bhāryayā kurunandana pāṇḍuḥ  paramadharmātmā yuyuje kāladharmaṇā / Book 1; Chapter 116; verses 9-11

Thereafter the question of succession to the throne , with which Satyavathi was so obsessed all her life, took a crooked path; and, it eventually led to internecine bloodbath.

Kimshuka butea-frondosa




Posted by on September 7, 2012 in Mahabharata


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Bhishma – A Life Unfulfilled

Bhishma , to me , looks an enormous waste of strength , learning and of life .He, in a way , also represents how inactivity and misplaced sense of loyalty could diminish a mighty one to a minuscule and be brushed aside with disdain. at no risk of retaliation. He brings grief on to himself and unto others around him by his inactivity and at times by needlessly meddling in others’ lives . His life too ends in a sort of irony with his past haunting to wound him mortally and thereafter prompting him to render lengthy discourses , from his death bed , on the things that he did not practice in life .His listener, too tired , listless and disillusioned scarcely had time or opportunity to put into use what he learnt from the savant on a death bed of arrows.

I wonder how his treatment of women, earlier in his life, will stand up to the present day norms of decency towards women and respecting their freedom of choice.

As his half-brother Vichitravirya was still a child when he was crowned the king, Bhishma ruled as his regent , with the approval of his step mother  – Satyavathya mate sthitha . When the young king was of the age to marry, Bhishma looked around for a suitable bride. He heard that the king of Kashi was holding a swayamvara for his three daughters. Since Vichitravirya himself was too young and weak to stand any chance of being chosen by the young women, Bhishma raided the swayamvara and forcibly abducted the three brides-to be – Amba, Ambika, and Ambalika – against their will , while the assembled suitor-kings/princes were shouting protests that his he broke the code of conduct that all of them had agreed upon , to respect the wishes and the decisions of the three women .


Of the three sisters , Amba’s is a heart rendering tale ,one of suppressed rage of a strong female .She went up to Bhishma and said “you are well aware that Salva the king of Saubala. and I are married in spirit, if not according to the sastras. You brought me here by force, do you think what you did was right.” Bhishma conceded and sent her back to Salva.

Ecstatic, Amba ran to Salva and asked him “Marry me.” Salva however rejected her because of his humiliation in defeat to Bhishma and told her ” One conquered by  another , O fair one, and released from his house , I do not receive. Go back to Bhishma and do as he commands ” . Here , Salva’s rejection was not for fear of Bhishma ; but , was due his false sense of pride that was badly hurt ; and even by spiteful jealousy ( adigrha-darsina) . The author of  Mahabharata , in fact , condemns Salva for unreasonably deserting Amba who was in a desperate situation ( evam sambhashamanam tu …pratatya jata)

Amba returned to Hastinapura and narrated her predicament to Bhishma who then asked Vichitravirya to marry the third sister Amba too . But , he too refused Amba saying that he couldn’t marry someone whose heart was already with another.

Amba, desperate then, attacked Bhishma rebuking him that he and his meddling ways were the cause of all her troubles. ` You took me by force. According to the Kashtriya code of conduct you necerrrily have to marry me. Therefore, `Marry me,” she demanded, “ and, set things right.” Bhishma, of course, had taken the vow of Brahmacharya and insisted on preserving his celibacy intact.

For six long years, Amba doggedly ( parinishaya) went from warrior to warrior, seeking someone who would fight Bhishma on her behalf. None came forward; such was the fear that Bhishma evoked in the minds of men.

[One version mentions that Amba did about twelve years of severe , determined penance ( tapase dhrta samkalpa) on the banks of the river Bahuda  (perhaps Jhelum ..?) , in the foothills of the Himalayas. It is said; the god Skanda assured her that in due course she would be the cause of Bhishma’s death.]

Finally, consumed by helpless rage,  Amba threw herself into a funeral pyre .

It is said Amba was born again as Shikandin, vowed to kill Bhishma.

Amba is an example of the suppressed voice of a strong female As a woman she lacked the ability to avenge herself. No male dared to help her against Bhishma. She therefore needed to be a man of the kshatriya class to fulfill her vow. Perhaps there might be a case of transformation lurking here. In any case , at the great battle of Kurukshetra , Sikhandin joined Arjuna on a chariot, and they slew Bhishma with a flood of arrows. Bhishma refused to retaliate against Sikhandin because he recognized Amba in him.

A couple of interesting themes come up in this part of the story. One is the use of ambiguous sexualities. The other is the fine line between love and hate. Some believe Amba’s time in the forest led to love for Bhishma, which masqueraded as intense hatred. Killing him was also a favor done to him by releasing him from his self-forced bachelorhood.


It might have been a common practice among the princes of those days to take brides by force , if necessary .But, Bishma captured the brides to be , not for himself but for his half-brother, still a boy, and incapable of winning a wife for himself. No kshatriya princess would love to or even care to marry a man who cannot win a wife for himself .

Somehow the Bharatas seemed to have fallen into a habit of bringing home brides by force , much against their will. . It started with Satyavati , then Ambika and Ambalika. Similar was the story with Gandhari and Madri . Bishma could be credited with bringing brides for three generations of the Bharatas – for his father, for his half-brother, and for his nephews, though he himself remained unmarried. None of those women had a happy life ; they were angry and hurt all their life.


Ambika and Ambalika were married to Vichitravirya. However, soon after the marriage, Vichitravirya died of consumption , producing no heir to the throne. Hastinapura was left with two widowed queens, a widowed queen mother and a regent ; but no king. Therefore ,Vyasa ,the son born to the queen-mother out of wedlock ,was summoned to father sons from out of the widowed queens. Pandu and Dhritarashtra were born of that loveless copulation – one was pale with anemia and the other was born blind.

I understand that true love and passion cannot be bought or demanded; and that intimacy comes only when a woman gives it freely on her own terms .Offering her body to her partner epitomizes her commitment. It signifies intense expression of love . In this case, Ambika and Ambalika were forced into loveless copulation with their brother-in-law in order to produce an heir to the throne.

This idea of a levirate marriage was introduced into Mahabharata , with Vyasa fathering sons through the widows of his half-brother. This also brought into focus the separation of love and sex .This theme extended further into the epic when it became an important premise of the relationship of Pandu and his wives, Kunti and Madri. Pandu’s cursed life forced his wives to beget children from someone else . Out of devotion to their husband, they vulnerably joined flesh with another ,  be they gods. Kunti the warm -blooded woman she was , longing for intimacy with her husband cried at the funeral of Pandu and Madri, “She was more fortunate than I, to have seen his face alive again” .

The purpose of all this sordid mess was to perpetuate the Bharata lineage. However, no Bharata blood ran through the veins of Dhritarashtra or Pandu or even in the sons of Pandu. With this as a foundation, is it any wonder the family was dysfunctional..?!

Bishma , to put it bluntly , not only messed up his life but threw the lives of those around him and the of the next generation into a vortex of sordid mess presided over by a blind father and a meddlesome patriarch.


The most brazen act of evil by the Kauravas was threatening a woman’s chastity; and with that the Kauravas sank to the lowest level of adharma. That was also the lowest point in Bishma’s life.

Draupadi a bride of the Bharatas , his granddaughter-in-law, a woman in her periods and clad in a single piece of cloth was dragged by her hair into an open assembly , stripped almost naked and called a whore. Bhishma the elder statesman and the most senior member of the royal family , just watched in silence and shame ; he did not utter a word in protest or in her defense. Even if his misplaced loyalty prevented him uttering a protest , he could have defended her as any right thinking man would have done had a helpless woman been dragged and humiliated in public, in his presence.

Draupadi , the brave woman she was , amidst all that wretchedness, pointedly challenges Bhishma the knower of Dharma and demands an answer from him , whether Yudhishtira had a right to stake her in the game after he had staked and lost himself and became a slave. Bhishma shame facedly confesses his inability to decide the issue. ”I am unable to answer your question because Dharma is subtle”, he says (na dharmasaukshmyat subhage vivektutm shaknomi te prasnam imam yatthaavat).He even tells her lamely that its essence is concealed in a dark cavern (dharmasya tattvam nihitath guhaayaam). Even if she were to be a slave , was it not an elder’s Dharma to defend a helpless woman in that state?

“Shrinking from ones moral duty, refusal to act when it is difficult to act , attachment to ones interests alone and finding a pretext to one’s delusion- these weaknesses destroy a person and his society.”-Mahabharata.

Watching a unrighteous act that he knew was heinous, keeping his mouth shut was the greatest of unrighteousness of Bishma . That was the conduct of a coward, not of a Kshatriya. He went against his Swadharma. His inaction illustrated that Kshatriya’s “witness” stance brings about the destruction of the kingdom and of the Dharma. The Kshatriya duty is to fight to protect the weak; for that is his Dharma, the truth of his nature. By not being true to his Dharma because of inaction, Bhishma brought destruction and misery not only to himself but also to the society of which he was a pillar. He acted just as a confused, helpless old man scared of his evil and powerful grandson, would do.

The genius of Krishna was that he did not go by the external forms of what looked like dharma . He saw through the evil and improvised apt ways to protect the larger interests of the Dharma. He believed as he said that the essence of Dharma was in ones life , in living it , practicing it and experiencing it; and not in merely talking about it.

It is a validation of this fact we find in Bhishma who from his bed-of-arrows advises Yudhishthira on the duties, responsibilities of a king and the need to protect Dharma. Bhishma in fact had not practiced what he preached. He remained a mute witness to the aggression of Adharma .And to think ,all that happened was because of the greed of one man for power and the inaction of another who refused to stand in the way of that greed, though he was duty bound to; that hurts.

Had Bishma acted in the true spirit of his Dharma, Mahabharata would have been a different Epic.


As the war looked destined , I am intrigued to no end by his inability to assert his authority in order to settle the dispute . He , perhaps out of a misplaced sense of loyalty to the blind king , his nephew , supports greed and aggression ; and leads the fight , though reluctantly , against what he knew was righteous. He perhaps reasoned that the Kurus (whether righteous or not) were in power now and they had to be supported. That was tragic not merely to Bhishma but to the millions of warriors that perished in the war and to their following generations.

Ganga Bhishma

The life story of Bhishma is truly amazing . Bhishma was one of the Vasus, a demi-god, born amidst humans. He was to be killed right at birth by drowning him in the Ganga, just as his seven elder brothers were killed . He escaped death because Shantanu his father desired to be left with at least one son . Of the eight sons of Shantanu and the Ganga , only Bhishma was spared death . I wonder whether that was a blessing or a curse . To me , Bhishma was cursed to live.


At the commencement of the Epic , we come across Bhishma as a young , handsome, strong , austere, brave, self-sacrificing prince, who renounces the throne for his father’s happiness. An ideal son. But somewhere down the way he appears to have lost focus on life. As the Epic gathers pace and gallops towards the inevitable doom, Bhishma ends up as a confused , disillusioned , neglected and a lonely old man whose life littered with errors. He was gifted with everything that a man could ask for ; yet he threw away most of those advantages ; for no reason.


There is an interesting comparison between Bhishma of Mahabharata and Vibhishana (younger brother of Ravana) of Ramayana.  In either case, the person who occupied the throne they served tried to violate the chastity of a pure and a virtuous woman. Both those kings (Ravana and Duryodhana) had sunk to the lowest level of adharma. Both Vibhishana and Bhishma strongly disagreed with the acts of their respective kings. But, it was Vibhishana who had the courageous detachment to disassociate himself from the immoral regime of his king, his brother, and to join the forces of Dharma which his brother opposed. Vibhishana‘s unpopular decision was open to controversies and even to ridicule. Yet, Vibhishana was steadfast; he stood by his decision which according to him was the right one, by all counts.

In contrast, Bhishma the old-guard needlessly chose to cling to what he did not approve, because of his misplaced sense of loyalty. And, he eventually brought grief on to himself and unto others around him by his indecision and inactivity.His life too ends in a sort of irony with his past haunting to wound him mortally and thereafter prompting him to render lengthy discourses, from his death bed, on the things that he did not practice in life . His listener, too tired, too listless and disillusioned, scarcely had time or opportunity to put into practice what he learnt from the savant on a death bed of arrows.


Bhishma, it is said, was gifted with a boon to choose the time of his death. The death dare not approach him till he accorded it his permission. Yet, I sometimes wonder why he chose to live so long. It is sad to see a self-sacrificing , almost a god getting bogged in the mire of this world , meddling with everyone’s life and finally living on and on , unwanted and uncared when he could have chosen to end the agony. Bhishma endured so much pain in life and in battle that even the bed of arrows did not hurt him anymore. It was sad for one who didn’t even want to be born.

There is perhaps a lesson here , too much attachment and involvement in where it is not needed is not merely unrewarding but is dangerous too ; while at the same time sheer inactivity renders one irrelevant. Our texts have always talked about a sense of balance that life should have.


partnernhm (1)



Posted by on September 7, 2012 in Mahabharata


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Evolution of Dharma (3 0f 3)

Dharma in Mimamsa and Vaisheshika systems

Dharma in the Purva Mimamsa is used in a rather restricted sense;”Codana-lakshnortho dharmaha”. Dharma is the desired goal as per scriptures. Purva Mimamsa (1.1.2) speaks of Dharma as Vedic rituals leading to happiness and heaven; and saves one from degradation and suffering. It also talks in terms of Apurva, which means the subtle effect of actions performed in accordance with the scriptures.

Jaimini defines Dharma as that which is enjoined by the Vedas and which does not lead to suffering.

Kanaada in his Vaisheshika Sutra (1.2) defines Dharma as” Yato bhyudayanih- sreyasa siddhih sa dharmah“, that which leads to the attainment of prosperity (in this life) and eternal bliss (beyond life).Dharma here mean actions approved by the scriptures, religious practices and rituals, unseen results of such actions or the very fabric of ones life.

Compare this with what Krishna tells Arjuna in the Gita: Sacrifices will not lead to heaven if the desire for heaven is the sole motive of such rituals. Sacrifices are effective only when conducted with a sense of duty.

Dharma in Dharma Shastras

Dharma Shastras are made up of a vast number of texts produced over the centuries. There are literally hundreds of Dharma Shastra texts and a far greater number of related commentaries and digests. The principle Dharma Shastra texts include four Dharma Sutras of Aapasthamba, Gautama, Bahudayana and Vashista. Four important Smritis of Manu, Yajnavalkhya, Shanka and Parashara follow them. There are of course innumerable commentaries and digests on these texts. The modern Hindu Law relies on treatment of certain subjects by these texts; of course with suitable modifications and necessary revisions.

Dharma Shastras claim they derive their authority from the Vedas, but hardly any of their contents can be linked to Veda texts. They do, however, accept the authority of the Vedas and stress that moksha, liberation, is the ultimate goal of human life. They also recognize the need for reflective morality. ”The Vedas, Smritis, usages of good men , what is agreeable to one’s self and desire born of deliberation-these are traditionally recognized as the source of Dharma”(Yajnavalkya Smriti-1.7). However, the Vedas enunciated abstract principles and contained little concrete discussions on duties. The smritis were mainly digests of the prevailing practices. Therefore, for all practical purposes custom defined as “what is in vogue and is long standing” was the dominant source of the Dharma.

Dharma Shastras categorized under Smritis, the secondary texts, are commonly described as Law Books. They are however not in the form of the law books that we know. They are not codified substantive laws or legal norms. They are more in the nature of a body jurisprudence, a collection of numerous treaties produced by sages on various subjects such as daily rituals to be observed in each of the four stages life; duties of four varnas, customs, rights and obligations; rules and procedures for resolving doubts and disputes on issues of Dharma; and rules for punishment and penances for violations of the rules of Dharma etc..

Dharma Shastras made extensive use of Mimasa methods to reconcile conflicting texts of equal authority by applying its various rules for interpretation of words, phrases and sentenses.It adopted the Mimamsa style of argumentation. The other disciplines, on which Dharma Shastras relied heavily, were the grammar (Vyakarana) and logic (Nyaya).

Dharma Shastras are an impulsive mix of religion, morality and points of law. It is not easy to separate the one from the other. These texts derived their importance as the sources of religious law describing the life of an ideal householder; and as summations of knowledge about religion, law, ethics etc. It is perhaps because of their heavy religious content and reliance on religion, these texts came to be known as Dharma Shastras.

There is a world of difference between the Dharma of the Rig Veda, Upanishads and the epics on one hand, and the Dharma of the Shastras on the other. Dharma of the Shastras is not the Atman or the sublime cosmic order that governs the universe and sustains our existence, as the Rig Vedic Rishis envisioned. It is also not the universal principle of law, order and harmony as envisaged in the Upanishads. Nor is it the ordained duties or the Sathya, the pristine Truth as in Ramayana. Dharma here is not the one that which upholds the world, as in Mahabharata. Dharma here does not refer to the duties as ordained by the scriptures or even to Atma jnana as propounded in the Bhagavad-Gita.

Bhagavad-Gita viewed moral and spiritual merits as duties of the Brahmanas. The Dharma Shastras construed them as a means of livelihood for the Brahmanas. The old spiritual interpretations of those merits were smudged into dogmatic rules . Imparting instructions , officiating at the sacrifices , receiving gifts , became the special occupation of the Brahmanas.The distinction between spiritual obligations to the society and an occupation for earning a living was lost.

The Dharma these Shastra speak about is not universal. It is not applicable to entire creation or to all human beings. It is not even applicable to all segments and classes that compose the society. Its prescriptions are not valid for all times to come, either. The Dharma of these Shastras has very limited jurisdiction and authority. Their application is very specific and circumscribed by the limitations of Desha (region), Kaala (times) and Achara (valid practices of a region or of a class of people).

The texts viewed the society not as a collection of individuals but as a community of communities. It was articulated into specific castes, each with its economic functions and a place in the social hierarchy. An individuals Dharma was derived from the caste of his birth. One of the purposes of the texts seemed to be to keep the members of the society within their assigned roles.

Dharma Shastras are principally concerned with the rights and privileges of upper castes, consecratory rights (samskaras), stages of life, rules of eating, duties of the kings, legal procedures, eighteen titles of law, categories of sin, expiations and penances, funeray and ancestral rites(antyesti and shraddha) and atonement rites(Prayaschitta) etc. They are thus mainly occupied with the religious rites of a certain class of people and to an extent with the personal laws of marriage, inheritance etc; and they generally aim to induce ‘appropriate behavior’ of human beings.

Let me quote from Patrick Olivelle ‘ book on Dharmasastra :.

Dharma includes all aspects of proper individual and social behavior as demanded by one’s role in society and in keeping with one’s social identity according to age, gender, caste, marital status, and order of life. The term dharma may be translated as “Law” if we dp not limit ourselves to its narrow modern definition as civil and criminal statutes but take it to include all the rules of behavior, including moral and religious behavior, that a community recognizes as binding on its members.

In short, these unique documents give us a glimpse if not into how people actually lived their lives in ancient India, at least into how people, especially Brahmin males, were ideally expected to live their lives within an ordered and hierarchically arranged society.”

The subject-matter of the Dharmasutras, therefore, includes education of the young and their rites of passage; ritual procedures and religious ceremonies; marriage and marital rights and obligations; dietary restrictions and food transactions; the right professions for, and the proper interaction between, different social groups; sins and their expiations; institutions for the pursuit of holiness; king and the administration of justice; crimes and punishments; death and ancestral rites.

Many concepts of the Dharma Shastras might look, today, rather grotesque and outdated; and are therefore not acceptable in their entirety. That is not surprising at all; since those texts were addressed to a people of a particular time who lived their life in the context of their times. Those laws were also not meant to cater to the needs of all people at all times. The texts themselves emphasized the need to revise their prescriptions to keep in tune with the changing needs and demands of the individuals and the society. It is to the credit of the self-balancing genius of Hinduism that it has discarded the inconsistencies and anachronisms of the Dharma Shastras, in a dignified way and tried to retain the best the texts have to offer; while at the same time assimilating new currents of thought and transforming itself into an evolving and an expanding religious tradition.

Dharma Shastras are not of much practical significance today, as its secular aspects dealing with marriage, right to property, inheritance etc. have since walked into the modern Hindu Law, through an indirect route. How that happened is rather interesting. The early British in India tried to dispense law according to local customs.The process was hastened with the establishment of Supreme Court in 1774. For the benifit of the English Judges ignorant of Sanskrit , ancient Sutras relating to civil matters of person and property( Vyvahara) were translated into English. The one text that received greater attention in that context was Jagannatha Pandita’s Nibhanda on Vyvahara. Its translation was completed during 1794. Thereafter the English scholars attempted to codify the Shastras and to establish the chronological sequence of the texts in order to trace the authority to a single original source. Their attempts were not successful and an agreed – on authoritative chronology could not be established. However, by 1864, the long years of these exercises yielded a peculiar kind of case law in the form of a chain of interpretations by the English judges based on what they thought were the authoritative portions of the Hindu texts. This completely transformed the “Hindu Law” into a form of case law. What we have today is a forest of citations referring to previous judges decisions- as in Anglo Saxon – derived legal systems; and it is left to the skills of the judges and lawyers to find the precedent and to make the law. Those precedents are again those that were set up by the English judges. What started as a search for the “ancient Indian Constitution” ended up with English law for India and Indians -just what Indians would have wanted to avoid.

Further , the case-law was compiled without understanding the basic fact that in the Sutra the ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ aspects of Hindu -life are not strictly seperate; but, they are closely interwoven in the Hindu motives and actions. In the ancient Indian criminal-law too the  religious and secular punishments were intermixed. An offence was treated both as a sin and as a crime.

In addition , by the time the British took to applying the ancient Dharmasastras to the Hindus of the 18-19th century , the Indian society had moved much further away from the society of the Sutras. For instance, the Sutras viewd human life as one continuous span stretching from the womb to death and even beyond to the next birth. There was much emphasis laid on purification cermonies  (shuddhi) and on sacraments (samskaras). But , by the time the British took to administering  civil and criminal laws , the Indian socity had passed through Muslim rule. Many of the old beleifs and rituals had vanished and a certian amout seceptisim and ‘irreligious’ attitudes had crept in. The ancient Sutra injunctions were no longer relevant in most cases.

These limitations and lack of proper understandin of the Indian context  have led to narrow and restrictive interpretations of codified statues, especially in matters relating to family law and law relating to religious endowments. The rulings at times fail to serve the cause of Dharma or of justice. Therefore, the Hindu law, as we have today cries out for a re- look. However, unfortunately in the present socio-political environment in India, reform of religious law is a contentious swamp that legislators generally try to avoid. Further, the study of Hindu law is neglected due to the combination of declining knowledge of its classical foundations; and the pressures of modern political correctness. Studying Hindu law is often looked down as a regressive activity, threatening the minorities in particular, and the women.

In any case, in the present context, the secular functions of the Dharma Shastras have to find their survival in the personal law and civil law books. There is no other way.

Coming back to the connotation of the term, Dharma in the Dharma Shastras broadly meant ‘appropriate behavior’ of human beings in a given context. The term also had religious and caste overtones. With the metamorphosis of Dharma Shastras into Hindu Law, the elements of caste and gender have largely disappeared. In order to ensure fair and equitable dispensation of justice,Dharma now needs to be interpreted in terms of universal non-hierarchical norms for right conduct.

A question that is often asked is, whether Dharma is relevant today. The answer is; yes, it is.

Because man is free to select his options, he needs to think and understand that any human activity, including inaction, has the potential to cause a chain of consequences. It is therefore important to choose an appropriate path. One has to therefore look within oneself, judge the situation and act in the best interests of the self and of the fellow beings. That which guides us along the right path and elevates us is, in reality, the Dharma.

One of the strengths of Dharma is that it is preventive rather than punitive. It prevents us from going down the path of degradation and decay. It safeguards the values of life, the quality of living and the wellbeing of us and of our coming generations. Dharma is therefore relevant at all times.

The Rig Vedic concept of Dharma as Atman or as an all-pervading cosmic order is sublime; but is ethereal and beyond the ken of a common person. Similar is the Upanishad view of Dharma as a universal principle of law and harmony. That is also not easy to grasp. If one has to appreciate a concept, one necessarily has to relate it to ones experiences in life. One can relate to the trials, tribulations and dilemmas faced by the men and women of Ramayana and Mahabharata .That is the reason for the immense popularity and adulation for the heroes of those epics. Generations of Indians in their quest for right answers to their problems , moral dilemmas and to a meaning for their life, have sought guidance and inspiration from the illustrations of Dharma as demonstrated in Ramayana and Mahabharata. They have grown up in amazement, reverence and appreciation for the equanimity, fair dealing and dignity, displayed by the epic heroes in their hours of distress. It also helped to strengthen their faith that right means will eventually lead to the right end.

The Dharma of Ramayana teaches honouring ones ordained duty, in the context; and adherence to Truth amidst temptations. That is relevant today too.

The Dharma of Mahabharata asks you to see through the evil and devise appropriate approach and action to safeguard the larger interests of Dharma and to perpetuate a living Dharma, at any cost. That is still relevant. Its call to put Dharma into practice and to experience it in life is also relevant.

The message of the Bhagavad-Gita to discover you true potential, to explore it with skill and diligence; and to live an authentic life, is relevant forever .Its emphasis on commitment to work, ethics and detachment is very relevant in today’s world.

Dharma Shastras’ concern for an orderly, peaceful and harmonious living of a person with his family, his society and the world, is relevant today too. Its statement that Dharma as a source of law and consciousness should influences the functioning of the State in its day-to-day governance is also relevant.

Dharma is not a stagnant concept; but it is a living experience. It is evolving itself all the time, constantly interacting with the challenges, demands and needs of the times. At each stage of its unfolding, it acquired a newer interpretation in the context of the life and events of that period while retaining all its other interpretations accumulated over the ages. What was amazing was that each one of its interpretations was as valid as the rest of them. Dharma is a many splendored thing. It is ever fresh and inventing itself all the time. That is because, Dharma is fundamentally related to life and its essence is in living it, practicing it and experiencing it. Dharma, in whatever form, will be relevant at all times.



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Posted by on September 6, 2012 in Dharma, Indian Philosophy


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Evolution of Dharma (2 of 3)

Dharma in Mahabharata

Ramayana, basically, is a story of chaste love between a husband and wife; and their unwavering adherence to Dharma throughout their trials and tribulations. The main characters in the story are not many in number; and the story covers a period of about fifty years. The evil was easily identifiable with its grotesque exterior and it had its base in far off lands. Ramayana demonstrated that a person of steadfast faith established in Dharma would eventually vanquish evil and ignorance. Fundamental to the defense of that Dharma was the sanctity of a Sati, a pure woman. Indeed the entire nature, its elements and animal world made common cause with Rama in re-establishing the Dharma. What characterizes the Dharma in Ramayana is its innocence, purity and nobility.

The canvass of the Mahabharata on the other hand, is much wider; the subject matter is rather sullied and its characters are too many in number, spread over several generations. They have a very complicated mental makeup too. The evil is neither easily identifiable nor is it far away. The evil in fact had entered the hearts and minds of almost all of its men and women, who came from the common heritage. The most brazen act of evil by the Kauravas was threatening a woman’s chastity; and with that, the Kauravas sank to the lowest level of adharma. The conflict that eventually took place was not between the absolute right and the wrong; but between two groups of cousins and their supporters; with a sprinkling of the noble among the crowds of not- so- noble. Pandavas themselves were not perfect, either. The stepping in of Krishna alone rescued the epic from degenerating into internecine family feud; and elevated it into a conflict of great significance to uphold Dharma. He taught the world that the ultimate conflict was not about land, riches or power but about the human spirit , the Dharma.

Vyasa says the purpose of writing Mahabharata was to ” engrave Dharma on the hearts of men”. Mahabharata , among other things, makes some great statements on Dharma ; such as :

”Our bodies are short lived, wealth does not last long, death is constantly knocking at the door; therefore accumulate Dharma”

(anityani sarirani vaibhavo naiva sahvataha, nityam sannito mrtyuh kartavyo dharma-sangrahah)

“It is Dharma since it upholds. Dharma is that which upholds the people of the world.”

(Dharanath dharmam ityahuh dharmo dharayate prajaah)

“Dharma, cultivated, preserves; Dharma, violated, destroys.”

(Dharma eva hato hanti, dharmo rakshati rakshitaha);

“Where there is Dharma, there victory also is”

(Yato darmah thatho jayaha);

Yet, the Dharma pictured in Mahabharata is ambiguous, uncertain and often disputed. For instance, Draupadi after the dice game, demands to know whether Yudhishtira had a right to stake her in the game after he had staked and lost himself. It was so difficult a question that even Bhishma, the recognized authority on Dharma, when pointedly challenged by Draupadi, confessed his inability to decide the issue.

“What a strong man says often becomes the only dharma. A weak man may have dharma on his side, but who listens to him? To tell you the truth, I do not know what to say” (Sabha Parva. 69.15-161).

”I am unable to answer your question because Dharma is subtle”, he says

(na dharmasaukshmyat subhage vivektutm shaknomi te prasnam imam yatthaavat).

Dharma is subtle (sukshmam) because its essence is concealed in a dark cavern

(dharmasya tattvam nihitath guhaayaam).

On another occasion, Draupadi wonders why they have to suffer so, if they were the righteous ones. If everything happened by the will of god, why then do the virtuous suffer? She exclaims, it seems only the powerful escape harm, not the righteous. Yudhishthira tries to explain: “None should ever perform virtue with a desire to gain its fruits.. … Do not doubt virtue because you do not see its results. Without doubt, the fruits of virtue will be manifest in time, as will the fruits of sin. The fruits of true virtue are eternal and indestructible”.

Years later, Yudhishthira has similar doubts. Soon after the war, he was overwhelmed by a sense of horror and melancholy; and was much troubled by the death and destruction caused by the war. His grief was inconsolable. Bhishma lying on his deathbed consoles him by teaching Dharma and the duties of a king, which includes rightful violence without greed. He also talks about Dharma in abnormal circumstances; and the absolute perspective that transcends the duality of good versus bad, right versus wrong, pleasant versus unpleasant. Yet Yudhishthira is unconvinced and decides to perform Rajasuyaga as penitence for the acknowledged wrongs of the war.

Mahabharata introduces the concept of Apad_Dharma, a sort of safety valve in an emergency when every other normal measure seems to have failed. It relates to stressful times of extreme distress or calamities, which threaten to endanger Dharma. In such circumstances, it might become necessary for Dharma to abandon its usual course, for self-protection. Apad_Dharma is that deviation from the normal. What is Adharma in normal circumstances might be deemed Dharma in Apad_Dharma. That is in the larger interests of the Dharma and for the benefit of others (loka) but not for personal gain. The logic behind this principle is, the ultimate Dharma (larger picture) has to be protected at any cost. That is why Dharma is profound and subtle. It is context sensitive.

Krishna guided the Pandavas to victory on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, often by miraculous intervention, avenged Draupadi and restored Dharma. Unlike Rama, Krishna did not adhere to conventional exterior of the Dharma. Rather, he judged the gravity and significance of each situation; and devised innovative methods to preserve and protect the essence of the Dharma. This often put him on a collision course with the conventional adherents of Dharma. Nevertheless, he justified his actions by insisting that the intense desire to protect the larger interests of the Dharma was at the core.

Pandavas, under his guidance, eventually broke each rule of the war: Arjuna shoots Bhishma when he lays down his arms before Sikhandin; Arjuna kills Jayadratha at “night” when Krishna simulates darkens; Arjuna shoots Karna when unarmed and Bhima crushes Duryodhana’s thigh (hitting below the waist).

On one occasion,  Krishna tells Yudhishthira: “Sometimes one protects dharma by forgetting it.”

Duryodhana accuses Krishna of unfair conduct; Krishna responds with two defenses: that it was his own deceit at dice that began this conflict, and the apparent unfair conduct was meant to defeat a greater evil: “The gods destroyed demons in the past in this way to protect Dharma”

Duryodhana bitterly replies that the Pandavas could never have won without cheating, to which Krishna agrees; right does not always triumph by ideal and unsullied means. “There are limits to the extent an individual can be moral in an immoral society”.

Karna laments as death nears him; his righteousness did not make him victorious: “Knower’s of dharma have always said, ‘Dharma protects those devoted to dharma.’ But since my wheel sank today, I think dharma does not always protect.”

Krishna taunts Karna, asking him whether he was referring to the same Dharma that prevented him from rising above his sense of obligation to Duryodhana, despite being aware of his evil designs; terming Draupadi a harlot and ordering her to be stripped in public.

That is precisely what the epic is about: the replacement of the dharma of a lower understanding by one of a higher level. It was that outdated, severely limited view of Dharma that Krishna was trying to root out and replace with a pragmatic Dharma. He emphasized, as he did in Gita that Dharma was in living and experiencing it; and not just in talking about it.

It is a validation of this fact we find in Bhishma who from his bed-of-arrows advises Yudhishthira on the duties, responsibilities of a king and the need to protect Dharma. Bhishma in fact had not practiced what he preached. He remained a mute witness to the aggression of Adharma. His inaction illustrated that Kshatriya’s “witness” stance brings about the destruction of the kingdom and of the Dharma. The Kshatriya must fight to protect the weak, for that is his dharma, the truth of his nature. Not being true to his Dharma because of inaction, brought destruction and misery to not only himself but also the society of which he was a pillar. Had Bishma acted in the true spirit of his Dharma, Mahabharata would have been a different epic.

[There is an interesting comparison between Bhishma of Mahabharata and Vibhishana (younger brother of Ravana) of Ramayana.  In either case, the person who occupied the throne they served tried to violate the chastity of a pure and a virtuous woman. Both those kings (Ravana and Duryodhana) had sunk to the lowest level of adharma. Both Vibhishana and Bhishma strongly disagreed with the acts of their respective kings. But, it was Vibhishana who had the courageous detachment to disassociate himself from the immoral regime of his king, his brother, and to join the forces of Dharma which his brother opposed. Vibhishana‘s unpopular decision was open to controversies and even to ridicule. Yet, Vibhishana was steadfast; he stood by his decision which according to him was the right one, by all counts.

In contrast, Bhishma the old-guard needlessly chose to cling to what he did not approve, because of his misplaced sense of loyalty. And, he eventually brought grief on to himself and unto others around him by his indecision and inactivity.His life too ends in a sort of irony with his past haunting to wound him mortally and thereafter prompting him to render lengthy discourses, from his death bed, on the things that he did not practice in life .His listener, too tired, too listless and disillusioned scarcely had time or opportunity to put into use what he learnt from the savant on a death bed of arrows.

Bhishma, it is said, was gifted with a boon to choose the time of his death. The death dare not approach him till he accorded it his permission. Yet, I sometimes wonder why he chose to live so long. It is sad to see a self-sacrificing , almost a god getting bogged in the mire of this world , meddling with everyone’s life and finally living on and on , unwanted and uncared when he could have chosen to end the agony. Bhishma endured so much pain in life and in battle that even the bed of arrows did not hurt him anymore. It was sad for one who didn’t even want to be born.

There is perhaps a lesson here , too much attachment and involvement in where it is not needed is not merely unrewarding but is dangerous too ; while at the same time sheer inactivity renders one irrelevant. Our texts have always talked about a sense of balance that life should have.]

Worse is the case of Drona who abandoned his swadharma and mortgaged his self-respect in exchange for royal patronage. Bhima taunts Drona, pointing out his selfishness and failure in life.

Yudhishthira exclaims, it is extremely difficult to ascertain who the good are and whose conduct could be taken as the standard of righteousness. Bhishma explains that the concept of Dharma is difficult, subtle and defies easy grasp. Bhishma, after explaining the difficulties in defining it, goes on to say, Dharma was ordained for the advancement and growth of all creatures; therefore, that which leads to advancement and growth is Dharma. Dharma was ordained for restricting creatures from injuring one another; therefore, that which prevents injury to creatures is Dharma. It is called Dharma because it upholds all creatures. Dharma is that which is capable of upholding all creatures. That which elevates is Dharma.

That which is called the conduct of the good may at times be stained by some errors. Fools, led by this, give up righteousness itself. On the other hand, wise men, avoiding those errors, take what is good and save themselves.

Bhishma tells Yudhishthira that in the Kali Yuga that had just stepped in, “dharma becomes adharma and adharma, dharma.” Somewhat paradoxically, he continues, “If one fights with trickery, one could oppose him with trickery. But, if one fights lawfully, one should check him with dharma … One should conquer evil with good. Death by dharma is better than victory by evil deeds.”

There is a touch of desperation in the voice of Vyasa as he comes towards the end of the epic. In Swargarohana parva he cries out with anguish, “With raised hands, I shout at the top of my voice; but alas, no one hears my words which can give them Supreme Peace, Joy and Eternal Bliss. One can attain wealth and all objects of desire through Dharma. Why do not people practice Dharma? One should not abandon Dharma at any cost, even at the risk of his life. One should not relinquish Dharma out of passion or fear or covetousness or for the sake of preserving one’s life”

The treatment of Dharma in Mahabharata is remarkable for its erudition, complexity and clarity of thought. The deeper you go into the epic the more you are impressed with its concern for the values of life, quality of living and for the wellbeing of the individual in harmony with the society. It touches almost every facet of human life. Its anxiety to safeguard the virtues and wellbeing of the coming generations is explicit in its every debate. The principle characters such as Krishna, Yudhistira are ever concerned how their actions might be perceived by the future generations; and are cautious not to set wrong precedents. The accent on healthy growth of Dharma and its perpetuation is primary to the unfolding of Mahabharata. This concern stems out of the strong faith that Dharma, the essence of right thinking and right living, is the law of being and is the basis of our existence. Our wellbeing and that of our future generations depends on that Dharma. It has therefore to be protected and perpetuated in the right way for the benefit of all, at any cost.

Because man is free to select his options, he needs to think and understand that any human activity, including in action, has the potential to cause a chain of consequences. It is therefore important to choose an appropriate path. If he had no options or if he was not free to choose, that is another matter. Mahabharata seeks to awaken the essence of Dharma within us, to learn to distinguish Dharma from its opposite. One has to look within oneself, grasp the true intent and spirit of Dharma in order to judge a situation and act in the best interests of the self and of the fellow beings. One may not always find ready answers to the problems at hand, in the external forms of Dharma; one may necessarily have to innovate the appropriate approach and action to safeguard the larger interests of Sathya and Dharma. That was the genius of  Krishna, who was far ahead of his times. It was he who stressed that the essence of Dharma was in living, practicing, experiencing it.

Shrinking from ones moral duty, refusal to act when it is difficult to act,attachment to objects and confusion- these weaknesses hinder the development individual and the society.

Introspection and innovation in order to experience, to protect and perpetuate a living Dharma, at all costs, is the message of Mahabharata and Krishna.

Dharma in Bhagavad-Gita

In Bhagavad-Gita, we find Dharma in a crystalline form. The term is employed in a more definite and clear sense. Dharma here is righteousness; the basis of all purusharthas (18.34).It is ones duty in the context of ones stage and calling in life. By performing his Dharma with diligence and skill, a person attains Abhyudaya, the well-being in this world and Nissreyasa, the highest good (4.8, 18.31, 1.40, 7.11 etc.).Dharma is also a synonym for Atma-jnana, Self-knowledge (9.30 and Karma yoga (2.40).

The Lord proclaims whenever Dharma is in decline and Adharma is on rise, I manifest myself (4.7).Here, Dharma connotes righteousness and the cherished values in life.

Bhagavad-Gita introduces an interesting concept of Swa_dharma, which broadly suggests : inherent aptitude or talent or interest or ability; authenticity or individuality; or that which comes naturally to you or your calling in life. It is the question of being and becoming. It asks you to realize your strengths, interests, aptitudes and call in life; and to develop your potential instead of wasting your time and energy on- things that are unnatural to you; or in imitating others or borrowing someone else’s ideas and goals. That could potentially lead to “fear inside”.

Swadharma underlines the importance of ones individuality, creative ability and authenticity in life; letting your potential to flower into something truly wonderful (Gita 3.33, 3.35).It is a commitment to yourself, to your potential and to your purpose in life. It is the art of living.

One of the ways to perceive your Swadharma is to engage in Swadhyaya, self-analysis, as suggested in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. The Self-analysis is both intellectual and intuitive, with the intuition leading the intellect. The accent is on realizing for oneself, for the sake of ones welfare.

Krishna asks Arjuna the warrior to perform his Swadharma and to fight on. How does a warrior perform his duty without doing wrong, not polluting himself with the blood of his fellow beings? The answer is detachment: do your duty without concern for the personal consequences. “Victory and defeat, pleasure and pain are all the same. Act, but do not reflect on fruits of the act. Forget desire, seek detachment.”

Apart from the way of undivided loving devotion, with mind fixed on the person of the Lord, with supreme faith and surrender, the Gita says there are two paths to liberation : renunciation and performing ones duty without desire. Since most cannot renounce all actions and intents in life, it is better to work without attachment (nishkama-karma). Gita emphasizes pravritti (engagement); and puts work , sense of duty and detachment in the hub of life.

Bhagavad-Gita thus highlights and develops a concept of work, ethics and detachment, as had not been elaborated in the earlier texts. It lays enormous stress on work, on practicing what you truly believe, on authenticity in life and on experiencing that in your life. That is the Dharma. It has scant respect for mere talk and not putting your belief into practice.


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Dharma in Dharma Shastras And  After.


Posted by on September 6, 2012 in Dharma, Indian Philosophy, Mahabharata


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Evolution of Dharma( 1 of 3)

Mr. Rajan in his blog What if Krishna became the Charioteer of Rama?, referred to the issue of the Yuga Dharma and obliquely to the dynamic character of Dharma. The idea of Dharma unfolding itself and acquiring newer interpretations at different stages and in different contexts, as it rolled on over the ages, fascinated me much.

Dharma is not a stagnant concept but a living experience; it is evolving itself all the time, constantly interacting with the challenges, demands and needs of the times. Dharma once visualized as the cosmic order, the eternal principle governing and sustaining the Universe; gradually metamorphosed into duties and responsibilities prescribed for varieties of beings in varied contexts and at different stages in the life of the society and the individual.

Along the way, it acquired an array of meanings and interpretations. At each stage, whatever was its form; Dharma was a point of reference to human existence; and a protection from confusions, delusions and upheavals. It always set an acceptable norm for a life well lived. Its underlying principle had always been the welfare of the society and the individual, leading to progress and harmony.

While talking of Dharma, one has to acknowledge the realities of life. The existence of evil in the individual and in the society is inevitable. It just cannot be wished away. At the same time, it is imperative to secure victory over that evil and injustice. Victory in this context means: a progression towards the greatest good of all, leading to peace and development of all beings; harmony of the individual with himself, with the society and with the universe; establishment of the right values in life; and helping humans to attain their ultimate goal.

Dharma does not necessarily win the battle each time in that ongoing conflict. Dharma nonetheless relentlessly pushes on, striving to restore and maintain a sense of balance, fair dealing and harmony in life. Evil will always be there and will never be completely eradicated. But it is essential that Dharma assert itself over the evil now and hereafter.


Let us take a brief look at some definitions of Dharma and its evolution over the ages.

Dharma is a richly connotative term that stands for a universal principle that is not easy to define but not impossible to outline. Dharma is ultimately the basis for our existence, prosperity and fair dealing in this world. All the other principles and values in life flow from the fountain of Dharma.

Dharma has variously been explained as: the principle or the law that governs the universe; individual conduct in conformity with that principle; that which is established or firm or steadfast; what holds together; the essential function or nature of a thing; codes regulating individual and of social conduct; a body of teachings; a sect or a religion, a way of life; righteousness; justice; duty etc. Every form of life, every group of people has its Dharma, which is the principle or law of its being. The failure to observe Dharma would put the individual and the society in peril.

At another plane of consciousness, Dharma is a synonym for Truth, Atman and God.

The essence of Dharma, in any case, consists in living and experiencing it.

Dharma can mean any one, more, or all of those explanations, depending upon the context in which it is referred. That is because; the term was employed in a variety of ways down the ages in different contexts; and the connotation and the scope of the term underwent huge changes over the period. It would therefore be worthwhile to glance at its evolution.

Dharma in Rig Veda

Rig Veda adopts a multifaceted approach to Dharma. At one level, Dharma is the, sublime cosmic order that governs the universe and sustains human existence. At another level, it guides the individual towards harmony with the universe.

Rig Veda does not engage in a systematic exposition Dharma. The seeds of Dharma are carried in the concepts of rta and sathya that Rig Veda refers to frequently. Rta is the natural or universal order and integrity of all forms of life and ecological systems. It recognizes our oneness with our environment and our unity with all life on earth. It is an inviolable cosmic order and Truth. Those were not imposed or created by God; but, in a sense, they are the God.

Rta is also used in the sense of consciousness of Truth; and when expressed through words and deeds it is Sathya. Rta in relation to an individual denotes his right conduct based on truth, the Dharma. Thus, the three terms Rta, Sathya and Dharma almost band together.

Dharma thus is not just harmony; it is pure Reality; it is also the law or right conduct based in Truth, which itself is also Dharma.

The term Dharma occurs in Rig Veda about fifty-six times (e.g.5.63.7, 5.72.2, 9.7.1, 9.25.2, 10.88.1, 10.170.2). In almost all the instances, it is used in the sense of duty or action, which contributes to the support or sustenance of the world. Atharva Veda too describes dharma symbolically: Prithivim dharmana dhritam, that is, “this world is upheld by dharma”.

viśvasvaṃ mātaram oṣadhīnāṃ dhruvāṃ bhūmiṃ pṛthivīṃ dharmaṇā dhṛtām |AVŚ_12,1.17a|


Dharma in Upanishads

The Upanishads continue the two-pronged approach to Dharma.

The Upanishads at one level see Dharma as the universal principle of law, order, harmony and the supreme Truth, Brahman. It is the law of being, without which one cannot exist- “anur esha dharmaha”- (Katha Upanishad 1.21). Dharma denotes Atman. It is Sat, the truth that Rig Veda proclaims in “Ekam Sat” (Truth Is One). It is also the Sat in Satchidananda (Truth-Consciousness-Bliss), the grand imagery of that Brahman.

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad speaks of the identity of truth and Dharma:

yo vai sa dharmaḥ satyaṃ vai tat | tasmāt satyaṃ vadantam āhur dharmaṃ vadatīti | dharmaṃ vā vadantaṃ satyaṃ vadatīti |

Verily, that which is Dharma is truth.

Therefore, they say of a man who speaks truth,
‘He speaks the Dharma,’

Or of a man who speaks the Dharma,
‘He speaks the Truth.’

Verily, both these things are the same

 (Brh. Upanishad, 1.4.14)

Upanishads also speak of Dharma in the sense of duty or course of conduct, which contributes, to the sustenance of the society and its members. Mahanarayana Upanishad (1.4.14) calls it “Dharmo vishvasya jagathah prathista” – that which sustains the world.

Chandogya Upanishad (2.23.1) speaks of “trio dharma skandaha …” the duties in three stages of life as the offshoots or the braches of the Dharma. This refers to the obligations and privileges of a student, a householder and a hermit.

trayo dharmaskandhāḥ | yajño ‘dhyayanaṃ dānam iti prathamaḥ | tapa eva dvitīyaḥ |
brahmacāryācāryakulavāsī tṛtīyo ‘tyantam ātmānam ācāryakule ‘vasādayan | sarva ete puṇyalokā bhavanti | brahmasaṃstho ‘mṛtatvam eti || ChUp_2,23.1 ||

The Acharyaopadesha in Taitteriya Upanishad (1.11.1) instructs “Dharmam chara”- perform your ordained duties.

vedamanūcyācāryontevāsinamanuśāsti / satyaṃ vada / dharmaṃ cara / svādhyāyānmā pramadaḥ / ācāryāya priyaṃ dhanamāhṛtya prajātantuṃ mā vyavacchetsīḥ / satyānna pramaditavyam / dharmānna pramaditavyam / kuśalānna pramaditavyam / bhūtyaina pramaditavyam / svādhyāyapravacanābhyāṃ na pramaditavyam // (TaittU_1,11.1)

Here, in these cases, Dharma stands for righteous behavior based on truth, in accordance with the right conduct prescribed as per law in the context of ones stage and/or calling in life. It is in the best interests of the society and the individual. It shapes and sustains ones existence as an individual and as a member of the society. All other meanings, interpretations and derivations from the term Dharma, in the later texts are corollaries of this central idea.

Dharma as Purushartha

The Rig Veda talks of another concept, that of rna which underlines the responsibility of man to his family, his community, his environment and to himself as a human being. Rna aims to set values in a normal day-to-day life. The fulfillment of three purposes of life (dharma, artha and Kama) acquires meaning only in the context of felt obligations (rnas). It is essential the pursuit of Artha (wealth or power) and Kama (desire or pleasure) is guided and restrained by Dharma. It is the violation of this requirement that sets apart the not-so-virtuous from the virtuous. Rig Veda (8.1.6) gives a call, “Man, you must reach upward, not go down below”.

If moksha is the goal, then participate fully in the affairs of society, raise a family, enjoy the good life, and serve the community … all within the framework of Dharma.

Dharma in this context is characterized by human values like truth, compassion, self-restraint, non-enmity, forgiveness etc. It sets proper priorities for human achievements, lends a sense of direction to human aspirations and rationalizes the relationship of the individual with the society and the world at large. It also provides ample scope for individual conscience and to exercise options.

We see here a logical progression from Rta a cosmic order to a code of conduct prescribed for the individual in the light of righteousness, commitment and a sense of balance in life.

Dharma in Ramayana

Valmiki presents his view of ideal conduct through Rama and his approach to life. Valmiki portrays Rama not as a supernatural being but as a rational human who in his life encounters several moral dilemmas and deals with each of them in accordance with the Dharma that was relevant in the context of the event and with reference to the stage of life he was then placed.

Valmiki says, ” Honour the duties of one’s stage in life”. To him Dharma is neither stagnant nor an abstract concept but a dynamic living experience. “Whichever Dharma you follow with steadfastness and according to the principles, may that Dharma protect you.”

Valmiki demonstrates the dynamic nature of the Dharma through the stressful events in the life of Rama, and by depicting how Rama reacted to those events in accordance with the Dharma then appropriate.

For instance, when the question of his exile came up, Rama was not a king, yet. At that stage in his life, the relation between him and the people of Ayodhya was not that of a king and his subjects. His station in life, then, was of a dutiful son. His primary duty, then, was to his parents and to his family. He rightly respected his father’s wish, obeyed him and saved him from the danger of breaking his solemn promise. By accepting the exile without hesitation or any ill feeling, Rama protected his Dharma, that of his father and that of his nation too. He acted with great sense of responsibility and set an ideal for the coming generations to follow. That is the reason Rama is regarded the upholder of the right conduct and as the epitome of virtue.

At a later stage in his life, after return from exile and crowned as the king, his Dharma as the king took precedence over all other concerns in his life. He placed the interests of the kingdom over that of himself and of his family.

As if to demonstrate the contrast, Valmiki also brings out in relief the ill effects of pride, greed, lust, jealousy, distrust, deceit etc. to highlight the virtues of Dharma, and to show how they could lead to degradation and destruction.

Another aspect of Dharma that Valmiki highlights is its equation with Sathya, truthfulness. To him, Sathya is Dharma and it is established in Dharma. Accordingly, Rama is entirely committed to truth; he is true to himself in spirit, word and deed. He not only follows the path of truth but also helps others to be truthful and to follow their Dharma.

Ramayana delineates the Dharma of a father, son, a brother, a king, a wife, a friend and a follower with illustrative examples. Valmiki in this context presents three contrasting sets of brothers.

Rama and his brothers idealize the brotherly love, affection and regard.

The relationship of Vaali and Sugreeva, in contrast, is a case where communication between the brothers has broken down. Whatever brotherly affection was there has since vanished. Each does not hesitate to kill the other or usurp the woman and kingdom.

The relationship among the brothers Ravana is of a different kind. Kumbhakarna is aware that his elder brother Ravana clearly trespassed Dharma and he tries to dissuade Ravana from pursuing the wrong path. After he fails in his attempts, Kumbhakarna decides to go along with Ravana, regardless; because of brotherly affection, allegiance, loyalty and respect for his elder brother.

Vibhishana on the other hand is clear in his mind that lending support to the righteous takes priority over loyalty to the family and to the brother. Vibhishana was perhaps the earliest instance of a whistle-blower. Dharma in these cases was a question of choosing the right priorities.

It is also a picture of three types of societies, each with its own set of values, mores and structure. One is the kingdom of man; the other is of the Vanaras while the third is of the Rakshasas. They are also pictures of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas gunas.

In all the three cases, the elder brother is denied the throne; each for a different reason. Eventually the Sattvics come to throne, but again in three different ways. It is virtually a demonstration of Dharma in action.

The principle characters – Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Dasharatha , Kumbhakarna , Vibhishana et al – each exercises his/her judgment and acts in accordance with what he/she considers is the right or righteous in the context of the then society, his/her Dharma in the circumstance. Ramayana thus sets in motion a context sensitive dynamic interpretation of Dharma, evolving itself all the time. It means that the broad principles of Dharma are translated into applications for use in specific situations; just as in the relation between science and technology.

This context sensitive theme, innovative treatment, and dynamic interpretation of Dharma gains greater significance in Mahabharata.

Read Next:

Dharma in Mahabharata


Posted by on September 6, 2012 in Dharma, Indian Philosophy


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