Tag Archives: Mahabharata

Bhagavad-Gita Multiple interpretations- Part One


Bhagavad-Gita, by all accounts, is rather an unusual text.

Bhagavad-Gita, is revered as one among the exalted triad of the fundamental philosophical texts (Prasthana-traya) of the Sanatana Dharma; the other two being the principal Upanishads (Upadesha prasthana, Śruti-prasthāna) and the Brahma Sutra (Sutra-prasthana or Nyaya-prasthana) , which is the condensed essence of Upanishads . The Gita is accorded the position of Sadhana-Prasthana (practical text); and, is regarded as the starting point of remembered tradition the Smriti-Prasthāna.

[Sruti is the directly perceived truth, hence more authoritative. Smriti is the heard or meditated upon tradition that follows the Sruti.]

: – And yet; the Bhagavad-Gita is located within the Mahabharata, an Epic which is classified as Ithihasa, a narration of the past events. The Gita is conceived and developed as a solution to the climax of a Dharmic dilemma that emerges during the course of the Epic. As Van Buitenen said; it was not an independent text that somehow wandered into the epic.

Mahabharata as Ithihasa is classified as Smriti, while the Bhagavad-Gita embedded within it is assigned a superior and an exclusive position of a Sruti, though it deviates, in some respects, from the traditional Sruti format.

[However, the famous philosopher Dr. Surendranath Dasgupta in his monumental History of Indian philosophy makes an interesting observation. In the Rig Veda, he observes, Vishnu is called as Gopa, Sipivishta, Urukrama, etc., but not as Narayana. Then he goes on to say, similarly, Bhagavad Gita does not use the term Narayana; but, the Mahabharata identifies Narayana with Vishnu. This, according to him, could show that Bhagavad Gita was composed much before Mahabharata tale was reduced to writing. He opines, Bhagavad Gita was composed at a time  when Narayana was yet to be equated with Vishnu.

In contrast to that, Eknath Easwaran asserts that the Gita was composed much later under the realities of a new age. It ‘is not an integral part of the Mahabharata. It is essentially an Upanishad, and my conjecture is that it was set down by an inspired seer and inserted into the epic (later).’]

: Regarding the plausible ‘Date’ of the Bhagavad-Gita , Justice Kashinath Triambak Telang, in his introduction to Bhagavad-Gita  (Oxford, New  Clarendon Press, 1875/ 1882) , conducts a detailed discussion covering various aspects , such as ; the language; the philosophical outlook; its treatment of the Vedas ; and its proximity to the Upanishad-like-ideas etc.

The language of the Gita differs from that of the Sanskrit of the classical age. Its style is naturally simple, direct and uncomplicated;. It is neither too terse like the Sutras; nor is it heavily adorned with the tropes (Alamkaras); and yet, it is not devoid of aesthetic appeal and beauty.

Further, its attitude to the Vedas is very interesting. It does hold the Vedas in high esteem. But,  it says that one who has acquired certain level of devotion and exerts himself for further progress , rises above the Vedas (Gita-Ch.6-verse 44). The Upanishads also  put forth similar views rejecting the validity of the rituals.

Most of the references to the Vedas in the Gita pertain to its connection with the rituals (Karma-kanda). This is similar to the approach adopted by the Upanishads towards the Vedas. Further, some stanzas in the Gita resemble some in the Upanishads.

Further, the Gita (Ch.9, verse 17) refers to only three of the Vedas (Trayi)- Rig, Saman and Yajus; but, never  to the Atharvana Veda.

Another interesting point is that which relates to the castes and their divisions. The Gita states that such divisions are based in the differences in the qualities (Guna) and duties (Karma); and, that the various duties are performed according to the difference in ones qualities. The Gita does not equate caste with ones birth or heredity. This is markedly distinct from the prescriptions of the later Dharma-shastras like that of the Apastamba.

The view of the Gita appears to represent the practice that was prevalent in an earlier age, before the time of the Sutras of Apastamba (prior to Third Century BCE).

The Gita does not anywhere proclaim the superiority of the Brahmans. (Ch.10). The holy Brahmans and the Royal Sages (Raja-Rishi) are bracketed together, as a class. And, the Kshatriyas, in particular, are said be to the links between the Deities and the mankind. They are declared as being the highest among men (Narottama).This is very close to the happenings in the Upanishads

All these again point out that Gita is definitely prior to the Age of the classical literature; and, might be nearer or contemporary to the Age of the Upanishads or of the Aranyakas.

Justice Telang concludes: the various and independent lines of investigation, which we have pursued, converge to the point,  that the Gita , on numerous and essential topics , ranges itself as a member of the Upanishad group, so to say, in Sanskrit literature. Its philosophy; its mode of treating its subject; its style; its language; its versification; and, its opinions on assorted subjects of the highest importance; all point towards that  one conclusion.

The latest date at which the Gita can have been composed must be earlier than the Third Century BCE; though how much earlier to that cannot be stated precisely.


: – Though Bhagavad-Gita appears as a part of the Mahabharata, it is studied and commented upon as an independent text, complete in itself. All the Acharyas who wrote Bhashya-s (commentary) on the Gita regarded it as a Sruti; and a source text of valid knowledge.  It was even considered as the fifth Veda (Panchama Veda); and, cited as a Pramana (a text of undisputed authority) on a range of questions.

: – The conversation (Samvada) that takes place in the Gita is not very lengthy, not exceeding 700 verses; and yet, it caused thousands of commentaries over the centuries.

[ The Bhishma Parva (the Sixth Parva in Mahabharata) is spread over 124 Adhyayas (chapters), in 4 sub (upa) Parvas (sections) ; and, having in all 5,381 shlokas (verses). Within that massive Parva, the Bhagavad-gita  is just about 700 shlokas, contained in 18 Adhyayas (starting from the 25th and ending after 42nd chapter of the Bhishma Parva), which appear under the third Sub-Prava (Bhagavat-Gita Parva). Thus, Bhagavad-gita forms a very small portion of the Bhishma Parva; but, its value and significance is immensely huge – ‘A little shrine within a vast temple’.]

:-  Gita regards the Absolute Reality  as Brahman to which nothing can be attributed ; as well as Saguna Brahman , a divinity with most adorable qualities; and, also as an ideal human being in the form of Krishna, the manifest Brahman. Gita refers to all the three forms without contradictions. They all are viewed as the different aspects of the One or THAT which is beyond –Tat Param

[Gita does not mention the term Avatar at all. Perhaps the concept of Avatar was then yet to be evolved. But, the seeds of an idea of a God who descends and takes forms on earth are present- sambhavami  yuge-yuge.]

: – As a philosophical text, Bhagavad-Gita is a part of the basic source-book of the Vedanta which speaks in terms of Brahman, the Absolute, infinite and eternal. But as a religious Book, it could even be reckoned as a Vaishnava text, since it regards Vishnu (Krishna) as the Supreme Lord of the Universe. And, it is closely associated with the Srimad-Bhagavata and related traditions of Vaishnava doctrine. Thus, Bhagavad-Gita is not only the revelation by Krishna, but also the revelation of Krishna as the Supreme Being.

[However , the scholars of the Kashmir Shaiva School, such as Rajanak Ramkanth (Sarvatobhadra – 850 AD); Bhatta Bhaskara (Bhagavad-Gita Tika – 900 AD); and, Abhinavgupta (Bhagavadgitarth Samgraha – 950 to 1050AD) interpreted Bhagavad-Gita from the Shaiva point of view and regard it as the one among the Shaiva-Agama class of texts.]

: – At another level, the Gita could even be seen as a personal god in conversation with a human being. The involvement of a divine being (as an inspiring leader) on an earthly battlefield and asking the warrior to carry on the fight is truly interesting. It, somehow, seems to mark the limits of the human; and , to point to the nature of war, prompted by god, as an avoidable necessity for restoration of moral order (Dharma) on the earth.

This view, needless to say, is highly debatable.

[The Samkhya concept of the Purusha and Parakrti; the passive and the active; the   inspirer and the doer, runs throughout the Indian texts in one form or the other.  The Nara-Narayana is the classic model of this concept. Here too, Krishna (Narayana) does not fight; but, motivates Arjuna (Nara) the warrior to carry on the fight. Krishna is the awakener (the Sun).]

:-  The  religion , which for whatever reasons is now  known as ‘Hinduism’ , does not have a Book  per se;   but , therein , the Gita has come to be recognized as a Holy Book upon which one swears to ’tell the truth , the whole truth and nothing but truth’.

: – Further, while the other ancient Indian texts are gradually fading out of the discussions among the common people, the Bhagavad-Gita and its ‘message’ is still being debated, with some fervor . And, no other Sanskrit work approaches the Bhagavad-Gita in the influence it has exerted in the West as the chief philosophical statement of Hinduism.

: – The narrative structure of the Gita is rather peculiar, as the scholar Devdutt Pattanaik points out in his My Gita:

dritharastra-sanjayaWe never actually hear what Krishna told Arjuna. We simply overhear what Sanjaya transmitted faithfully to the blind king Dhritarashtra in the comforts of the palace, having witnessed all that occurred on the distant battlefield, thanks to his telepathic sight.

The Gita we overhear is essentially that which is narrated by a man with no authority but with a distant sight (Sanjaya) to a man with no sight but with full authority (Dhritarashtra). This peculiar structure of the narrative draws attention to the vast gap between what is told and what is heard.

Krishna and Sanjaya may speak exactly the same words, but while Krishna knows what he is talking about, Sanjaya does not. Krishna is the source, while Sanjaya is merely a transmitter.

Likewise, what Sanjaya hears is different from what Arjuna hears and what Dhritarashtra hears.

Sanjaya hears the words, but does not bother with the meaning. Arjuna is a seeker; and so , he de-codes what he hears in order to find a solution to his problem. Arjuna, during the ‘conversation’, asks many questions and clarifications’, to ensure that he properly understands the purport of the ‘discourse’.

In contrast, Dhritarashtra remains silent throughout. In fact, Dhritarashtra is not interested in what Krishna has to say; but, is rather fearful of what Krishna might do to his children, the Kauravas.

: – As regards the treatment of its subjects, the Bhagavad-Gita describes itself as the essence of all the Upanishads. The Upanishads by their very nature are philosophical speculations transcending the physical world. The Gita ,on the other hand , teaches about living a worthwhile, meaningful life in the world among fellow beings – Jivana- Dharma – Yoga.

:- Further, the Upanishads which aspire to understand the essential nature of all things in the Universe and in the individual, as also the relation between the two , emphasize the superiority of knowledge (Jnana) over action (karma).

In the Gita, Krishna , on the other hand, asks Arjuna to follow the path of action and to act decisively.

The confused Arjuna, helplessly, queries Krishna for a clear direction: ’Oh, Janardhana, if you consider Knowledge (Jnana) to be superior to action, why then do you instruct me to perform this terrible act?- janārdana tat  kiṃ karmaṇi ghore māṃ niyojayasi keśava’ –  (BG.  3. 1 – 2).

The Gita does not seem to favor renunciation or total withdrawal from the world resulting in inactivity, nivritti. Instead the Gita teaches the sort of Jnana that endorses renunciation of desires, of fruits of action. It advocates activity pravritti with the renunciation of the fruits of action. Gita terms it as ‘inaction in action and action in inaction’ akarmaṇi ca karma … karmaṇy akarma (4.18). That is, performing acts according to ones calling, with equanimity; and, relinquishing attachment to the fruits of one’s actions.

anaashrita karma phalam kaaryam karma karoti yah
sa sannyaasi ca yogi ca na niragnir na ca akriyaha

One who does not depend on the fruits of action but does the work which is his duty. He is a sanyaasi and also a yogi, not the one who has renounced fire (rituals) and not one who (merely) does nothing (Bg. 6.1)

yoga yukto vishuddhaatmaa vijitaatmaa jitenriyaha
sarva bhutaatma bhutaatmaa kurvan api na lipyate

He who  by following Yoga, has purified the mind; has controlled the mind;  has controlled the senses; sees his own Self in all beings; and, does not get tainted even if he does work (Bg. 5.7)

[Krishna, of course, succeeds in reconciling the deep chasm between the two paths or approaches (Jnana and karma) by introducing the unique concept of internal renunciation, as opposed to external renunciation.

By reconciling otherwise two contradictory ideas, Krishna offers a realistic system which intertwines performance of one’s responsibilities in life without getting too attached to it. It cautions that an un-restrained desire for the fruits of one’s action, more often than not, leads to major blunders in decision making, both in personal and social life.

In this way, the Bhagavad-Gita adheres to both the ideals. It supports involvement in the performance of one’s social and moral responsibilities according to ones Dharma in life; and, at the same time it endorses the Upanishad ideal of self-realization which leads to liberation from confines of relative existence.  ]

Bhagavadgita Kalamkari

Manifold paths

The Gita begins with a response to Arjuna entering a state of despondency just at the time when he was required to perform. This is the initial problem of the Gita. Krishna’s teaching will, in later stages, cover several other paths or approaches to life; but, the initial focus is on the problem of action, with Karma Yoga as the solution. It is self-less performance with equanimity; equal acceptance of pleasure and pain; and, renouncing fruits of one’s action.


The Gita suggests that though we all are one in spirit, each one is different in her/his intellectual and psychological makeup; and, each has a role to play in this world, in her/his own manner. Each should choose her/his path in the most essential mission of all – the discovery of one’s true Self.  The Gita, broadly, lays down these paths as four – Jnana, Bhakti, Karma and Yoga. These paths are neither mutually exclusive, nor do they contradict each other. They are meant to be guide posts that direct us along the paths that best suit our nature and attitudes.

Jnana Yoga is the  intellectual path demanding that one apply reason and rationale in order to realize her/his essential core; and,  understand her/his relation with the world and god. It is a lonely path of self- discovery.  It is the discipline of knowledge of Self. It also means knowing clearly; realizing one’s own divinity; and, also seeing the divine in human and the earthly.

Since we do have to  exist , act and participate in this world , in a meaningful manner, understanding the true connotation  of  the path of Karma is essential. Karma is the way we conduct our lives , performing activities , fulfilling our roles and responsibilities towards self , family and the society at large; following a path of righteousness directed towards improving ourselves. While one should act diligently, one should not be overly attached or obsessed with the fruits of one’s actions.  The detached attitude towards the results, might, initially, appear to be a counter-intuitive or contrary to common-sense ; but , on reflection , one would realize that  it is the most efficient and clear-headed way to stay focused on the task at hand. The ability to maintain equanimity at good and bad times , even otherwise, marks a balanced approach to life.

The first-half of the Gita essentially teaches a combination of Karma-yoga and Jnana-yoga- to act selflessly with true knowledge of the reality. Here, Equanimity serves as a foundation standing upon which one can look beyond and reach for a reality that is totally different, the Absolute.

Though the wise one fights battles, he does it with composure , devoid of enmity or hate , rancor or self-interest. The enemy, after all, is as much a manifestation of God as the warrior is.

The Bhakti-yoga is the path of love, immersing oneself  in the boundless Love of God and, submitting to Him in artless faith and absolute devotion . It aims to experience the splendor of the divine in all its manifestations (Lila), and immerse in its delight (Ananda).

The Dhyana–yoga or Raja-yoga, the Royal way, is the discipline of meditation, withdrawing the senses, calming the mind and clearing it of confusions and other delusions. The path of Yoga is a method for controlling the waves of thoughts, and the senses; refining the mental and the physical energy. It seems to be based in the eight-fold (Astanga) Yoga system of the Sage Patanjali, though there are no explicit references to  it; and, there are also no separate verses or chapters devoted to this discipline


Arjuna begins in bewilderment and depression; and at the end, stands up to fight his cousins with composure.

[One of the commentators observes: assuming that the Gita was an insertion into the Epic; and, given the fact that the great battle did eventually take place, the outcome of the Gita could not have been different. Arjuna had to fight, in any case.]



It appears that the Bhagavad-Gita was composed during a vibrant period when growing verities of options for attaining liberation (Moksha) from confines of human limitations were hotly debated and ardently explored.

Bhagavad-Gita frequently refers to the fundamental philosophical concepts of Samkhya and Yoga Darshana-s. It is also based in many Upanishads providing verities of solutions to human predicaments, as also suggesting pointers to the understanding of the Universe, the individual and the relation that  exists between the two. The Bhagavad-Gita, in that process, draws upon many sources.

In that progression, the Bhagavad-Gita elaborates on the varied disciplines and paths of Jnana (knowledge), Karma (action), and Bhakti (devotion) as also Yoga for attainment of the highest good. The text calls itself Yoga-shastra – the science and knowledge of Yoga.   

The term Yoga is used in Gita in a variety of senses. And, Yoga here also stands for Marga, the path; be it the path of knowledge (Jnana-yoga), devotion (Bhakthi-yoga) or the path of action (Karma-yoga). In all these paths, the essential message of renouncing the fruits of action is stressed.

The Gita does not explicitly support one Yoga over the other. It rather extols one Yoga then another or a combination of Yogas. It is to be understood as a many-sided system with various elements juxtaposed.


Justice Kashinath Triambak Telang, in his introduction to Bhagavad-Gita  (Oxford, New  Clarendon Press, 1875/ 1882) ,writes :

The Gita offers a set of practical disciplines, without, however, attempting, to arrange or classify them in a systematic order. In other words, what we have in the Gita is the germ of the ideas or of the systems; but not a ready-made system as such.

There are also certain passages in the Gita, which do not easily reconcile with one another. And, the Gita makes no attempt to harmonize them.

For instance; Krishna classifies the devotees into four classes; and, says that he considers the Jnanis (the persons of knowledge) as his own (Gita – Ch .7-verse 16). This might give an impression that he places the Jnanis at the top of hierarchy. But, again he remarks elsewhere that the devotee (Bhaktha) is superior not only to those who merely perform penance; but , also to the men of knowledge (Gita-Ch.6-verse 46). And, in another passage, it is said that concentration is preferred to knowledge (Gita-Ch.12-verse 12).

All these indicate the Gita, as do the Upanishads, is a remarkably free, open-ended un-systematized work.

Does not seem to favor a particular path

The discourse on those subjects, however, is not arranged in a systematic manner. The Gita gathers and combines different trains of ideas just as it finds them in traditionally accepted Schools, without much effort to harmonize them. The text does not seem to hold up a single discipline or path as its ‘true message’. And, such ambiguity in its ‘message’ or the adaptability of ‘its message’  to different Schools of Philosophy and to the circumstances in life  has led to plethora of interpretations, each claiming that it has certainly grasped the ‘true message ‘of the Bhagavad-Gita.

One can even say that the scope for deriving varied types of  interpretations becomes possible mainly because of the unique virtue of the Gita which allows each reader  to discover its essence, in his or her own manner, at his or her own pace and terms.

Deciphering its meaning and its ‘true’ philosophical intent is neither easy nor simple. Some of the greatest minds have grappled with the philosophical problems present in it.


The ways of reading the Gita

There are several ways of reading Bhagavad-Gita. It can be read as a literary work or poetry of merit with allegorical imagery; it can be read as a part of Oriental studies; and, it can also be read as a philosophical work.

As a work of literature, its literary or poetical aspects would be discussed and the allegories would be highlighted. As a work of Indology, its historical background and linguistic aspects would be examined. Such a scrutiny would focus on the date of its composition; on speculations about its plausible author or author/s; or on the question of its relation to the context of the Mahabharata-events. 

But, it is the study and explanations of Gita’s philosophical outlook, its conceptual structure and speculations about its ‘true message’ that has given rise to diverse stand points and multiple interpretations. Such interpretations over the centuries have been so diverse and   so complicated, that it makes one wonder whether they all were referring to one and the same text.

The Gita’s adaptability to different kinds of philosophical interpretation is partly caused by the effort of its composer/s to bind within it the tenets of several philosophical schools (Darshana-s) including Samkhya, Yoga and the devotional aspects of the then emerging Bhakthi traditions. That, to an extent, injected ambiguities and incompatibilities in reading and interpreting the text.

The phenomenon of multiple interpretations of the Gita has continued over the long centuries. At different times or phases in the history, fresh interpretations of the ‘true message ‘of the Gita sprang up, each in the context of its own times, environment and preferred attitudes. Each successive interpretation of the Gita was at variance with its previous one.  And yet, what is most amazing is that each of those varied interpretations is valid in its own context.

That is to say; each commentator has diligently gone about in putting forth his honest understanding of the ‘true message’ of the Gita. Each commentary of the Gita is thus a subjective view of the text. The ‘message of the Gita’ might indeed be all of those assorted interpretations; and, even be more.

The quest for objective truth or the real truth of the Gita is still very much on, even thousands of years after it was uttered on a distant battle field, amidst two huge armies raring to go at each other.


Quest for objective truth

The quest for objective truth – (what did Krishna say, exactly?) – is another cause for emergence of multiple interpretations and countless number of commentaries. In the zeal to uphold his own interpretation as the objective truth of the Bhagavad-Gita, each commentator, somehow, seemed to get intolerant of the ones that differed from his own. That, in a way, is rather uncharacteristic of the Indian tradition which accommodates within itself and harmonizes various seemingly contrary positions.

All the branches of Indian traditions, notably the Jain, have always tried to adopt the concept of Anekāntavāda which, essentially, is a principle that encourages acceptance of multiple or plural views on a given subject. The Buddha too said that merely judging the issue from individual (separate) stand points of view would lead to wrong conclusions; it would be prudent to approach each issue from more than one point of view (aneka-amsika).

[Devadatta Kali (David Nelson) in the introduction to his very well written work Svetasvataropanisad: the Knowledge That Liberates writes:

Although the Indian thinkers are not immune to disputation , by and large , their culture has valued the principle of accommodation and acceptance…Throughout the centuries of Indian philosophical traditions , the differing views have often been seen as just that – as differing views of a single reality that lies beyond human power of articulation. The tendency has often been to harmonize opposing views as distinct parts of a larger whole whose fullness lies well beyond the reach of mere perception or reason. It needs to be stressed that the primary purpose of sacred literature is to impart spiritual knowledge, not to fuel intellectual or sectarian debate – or to create confusion.]

The basic idea here, is that the reality could be perceived differently from diverse points of view; and, that no single point of view should be taken to be the complete truth, to the exclusion of all others. The varied views could either be taken together to comprise the complete truth or as different dimensions of a single reality.

Bhagavad-Gita is a multi-layered text with many avenues for exploration. I , therefore, reckon that an Anekāntavāda approach would be more appropriate in understanding its manifold message, rather than steam- pressing it into a particular mold.

[Please listen to Dr. Karan Singh speak about Bhagavad-Gita : Click here

You may then opt for the Mini-view ]


Is there a need to seek for the ‘objective-truth?’

That again begs the question: is there a need to seek for the ‘objective-truth’ of the Gita? Because, there is a danger that such monolithic one’s own ‘objective–truth’ might shut out the options of myriad other plausible meanings. Thus, a purely objective view, despite its merit, seems to limit itself to a particular slot.

There is, therefore, surely some merit in subjective approach to the study and understanding of the Gita. In fact, some have suggested that each could try to compose his own Gita according to her/his own understanding and inclination.

As Shri Devdutt Pattanaik observes: The quest for subjective truth (how does The Gita make sense to me?) allows each (after listening to the various Gita-s around him/her) to discover one’s own Gita at his or her own pace, on his or her own terms.

The Gita itself seems to advocate subjectivity. Bhagavad-Gita in its structure and narration adopts the idea of free-will.   At the conclusion of his discourse, Krishna counsels Arjuna to reflect on what has been said, and then do as he rightly feels.

For instance; Krishna says that his teaching can be perceived directly (Pratyaksha-avagamam) according to one’s understanding (BG.9.2)

rājavidyā rājaguhyaṃ pavitram idam uttamam / pratyakṣā-avagamaṃ dharmyaṃ / susukhaṃ kartum avyayam 9.2

And again, in Chapter 12 of the Gita, Krishna counsels:

Fix your mind on me alone, and absorb your consciousness in me; thus you shall surely abide in me. If you cannot fix your consciousness steadily upon me, then aspire to reach me through repeated yoga practice. O Dhananjaya, if you are incapable of even that, embrace the path of action, for which I am the highest goal, since by acting for me you shall attain perfection. But if you are unable to follow even that path of refuge in me through acts devoted to me, then give up the fruits of all your actions, thus restraining yourself. Knowledge is superior to practice; meditation is superior to knowledge; and, relinquishing the fruits of action is higher than meditation, as tranquility soon follows such relinquishment.

What really is the true vision or Darshana of this ancient, sacred and marvelous treatise named Bhagavad-Gita, the song celestial?


Pluralism of the Gita

How does the text permit such a range of interpretations? What is common to them? How is it possible for so many to provide their own interpretations while still claiming to be reading “the Gita”? Why did this one text in particular exercise such fascination on so many generations of Indian and non-Indian thinkers? How could Bhagavad-Gita lend credibility or even moral authority to political movements in modernity? And , did they all use the text in their own  way, in  order to somehow secure Krishna’s divine authority ? ! 

Heinrich Von Stietencron  , addressing such an array of bewildering questions, writes:

The analytic thinking of Western interpreters who were schooled in historico-philological methods stands in contrast to the traditional Indian commentators, who not only harmonized and freely covered over all breaks in the text of the Bhagavad-Gita, , but, above all, sought to read their own philosophical-theological concepts out of individual textual passages, in order to secure Kṛṣṇa’s divine authority for them.

In this manner, several philosophical schools developed their own Gita -interpretation — a spectrum that has, since the beginning of India’s independence movement been further supplemented by politically motivated interpretations in modernity.


The multiple interpretations or pluralisms of approaches in understanding the Bhagavad-Gita have an extensive and illustrious history. During that long period, different aspects of the Gita came into the fore; new meanings were read into its passages; and attempts were made to adopt its ‘message’ to suit new or emerging situations.

The history of the interpretations of the Gita can broadly be considered under the following heads:

: – The Acharyas

The medieval period starting with Sri Sankara (8th century)  followed by  the  Bhashyas of Sri Ramanuja , Sri Madhwa and other Acharyas as also  that of Abhinavagupta analyzed and commented upon the Gita in terms of the traditional Vedanta concepts of Advaita, Visistadavaita and Davaita;   and assigned primacy either to Jnana (knowledge) or to  Bhakti (devotion) or to Karma (action) . Each scholar went  according to the  principal philosophical precept of his School of thought , while sidelining the other plausible interpretations .

Santa Jnanesvar or Jnanadeva (1274-1297) of Maharashtra in his celebrated rendition of the Bhagavad-Gita – Jnaneshwari (Bhavarth Deepika) – taught  the path of loving and guileless devotion (Akritrim Bhakthi) and self-less action as the true way. He said that everyone should perform his/her duty lovingly as a Yajna and offer his or her actions as flowers at the feet of the Lord. According to Jnanadeva; it is through such Bhakthi and Bhakthi alone that the Supreme Reality can be realized


: – The Colonial period

The period starting with the middle of the 18th Century when the English, German and French translations of the Bhagavad-Gita , captured the attention of the intellectuals as also that of the general-readers, widened the range of its readership as also the scope for its varied interpretations.

: – Initially, Bhagavad-Gita gained publicity mainly as a rare cultural object retrieved from the unknown past of the distant East; and , in particular , as ‘a curious specimen of mythology and an authentic standard of the faith and religious opinions of the Hindoos’.

: – That was followed by study of the Gita as a literary work. It proved to be a major influence on Romantic literature in Europe and Britain.

: – And, to the intellectuals and philosophers in the West, the Gita provided a perceptive view of the Hindu philosophy.  Among the scholars, the linguistic study of the Sanskrit text of the Gita; the historicity of the Mahabharata event; the questions of its authenticity and its date; the enquiry into its plausible author /authors and so on were widely discussed.

:-  The Gita evoked a different sort of reaction among the Christian Missionaries , They saw in it a possibility ’ to encourage a form of monotheist ‘Unitarianism’ ; to draw Hindus away from the polytheism of the Vedas’;  and,  to pave  way to spread Christianity in India.

:-  As the English and French translations of the Gita began to gather attention from among the educated class of the Colonial India of the 19th Century , it led to review and re-assessment of the principles of the Hindu philosophy and the practices of its faiths . The Western educated intellectuals and social reformers such as Raja Ram Mohun Roy regarded it as the essence of all Shastrus; and. interpreted Gita as a message for self-less action.

Though the Brahmo Samaj did not seem to have got the Gita translated , Debendranath Tagore tried interpreting Gita , in the Biblical mode,  as a sort of allegory depicting  the final battle (Armageddon) between the forces of ‘good’ and ‘evil’.

: – The Western scholars

Following its translations into European languages, the Gita gained a sort of territorial transcendence, spreading its influence beyond Asia. The Gita came to be regarded by the western scholars as a universally acclaimed text.

Among the Western scholars, the Bhagavad-Gita came to be looked upon as the authentic essence of Hinduism. And, and it became the most influential work on Indian thought. The German philosopher William Von Humboldt called Gita: the most beautiful, perhaps the only true philosophical song existing in any known language –the deepest and most elevated text the world has ever seen.  He was fascinated by its concept of Dharma delineated in various layers.

Similarly , TH Griffith saw Yoga taught in the Gita as the discipline of life, giving a deep insight into the ebb and flow of human desires and aspirations.

And, the German Indologist JW Huer described Gita as a ‘work of imperishable significance’ calling upon people to ‘master the riddle of life’.

Max Muller too believed ‘that textual authority of Gita should have pride of place in official knowledge about India’; but, he placed Gita next to Vedas in its authority and importance.


[Prof. Hephzibah Israel of the University of Edinburgh, in her paper  The Politics of the Gita in English Translation: Translating the Sacred, colonial constructions and postcolonial perspectives, writes

The Bhagavad-Gita was first translated into English by Charles Wilkins in 1785; and, into the German, either in part or in full , by Friedrich Majer, Johann Gottfried Herder (1792), and Friedrich  Schlegel (1808); and in full into Latin by August Wilhelm Schlegel (1823). And, it continued to be the object of translators’ attention throughout the nineteenth century.

German scholarly attention to the philological apprehension of Indian sources is linked to Indology, and to comparative linguistics and the study of religion. In fact, as a result of this early German philosophical engagement with the Bhagavad-Gita,

The text not only continued to be translated by both British and Indian scholars but was also accorded a Bible-like status; although Hindu Indians had not , hitherto, perceived it as such. The Orientalist desire for textual representations of the East can be “intimately connected to the desire among Hindu scholars to have scriptures, like Christianity and Islam” 

Significantly, the Bhagavad-Gita was ascribed high status in Britain and Germany by being treated as a self-contained philosophical text, rather than as an integral part of the much longer Mahabharata, one of the two Hindu epics that in popular Hindu formulations are considered foundational texts representing the “Indian nation” and its “culture.”

This is clear in the number of translations of the Bhagavad-Gita alone, singled out for attention with only brief reference to the larger text that it is embedded within. Unable to come to terms with a Hinduism that did not claim a single authoritative scriptural text, Orientalist scholarship reconfigured the existing sets of sacred texts through translation to bring forth a “central text” that could be identified as a higher foundational document. Examining para textual evidence such as titles, translator’s notes, prefaces, and introductions gives us a good indication of the purpose of a translation and how it was meant to function.. ]


 : – The Theosophists

The Theosophists recognized the Bhagavad-Gita as one of the major spiritual texts of the world.  Among the Theosophists, the allegorical approach with its esoteric and philosophical interpretations gained more importance. The historical and mythological context was kept in the background just to explain the context of the Gita.

According to them, Krishna in the Gita represented Logos the objective expression of the Absolute; while Arjuna represented the Monad, Nara, the whole of mankind rather than as a single person.

They explained life as an evolutionary process in which an individual evolves from lower to higher, from grosser physical forms to subtle spiritual forms of beings. The Gita, according to Theosophists  , is a framework for such a progression.

Theosophists interpreted the concept of one’s duty in terms of the Sva-dharma. They presented the world as a conditioned reality similar   to a huge game in which each piece must move in accordance with the rules governing its movements in order to keep the game going.

: – Swami Vivekananda


Swami Vivekananda , while in the West, compared Krishna’s teachings to that of Jesus. And, while at Home ,  he spoke about the inner battles in human heart and mind. And , he also described Krishna and Arjuna as men of action who could provide inspiration to reform and rejuvenate the Indian society that was fast degenerating into chaos and confusion. He  called for resistance against British oppression.

While laying more importance on the Gita’s larger allegorical meaning, Swami Vivekananda acknowledged the validity of historical research. But, he also said that mere discussion on   the historical aspects of the Gita cannot help one in acquisition of Dharma, or moral righteousness’.

The idea is: the Bhagavad-Gita is not merely a historically specific conversation; but, it is an ongoing teaching that has universal relevance. It is a process taking place all the times in each ones heart.

 He remarked:

 “One thing should be especially remembered here, that there is no connection between these historical researches and our real aim, which is the knowledge that leads to the acquirement of Dharma. Even if the historicity of the whole thing is proved to be absolutely false today, it will not in the least be any loss to us. Then what is the use of so much historical research, you may ask. It has its use, because we have to get at the truth; it will not do for us to remain bound by wrong ideas born of ignorance.”

:- Sister Nivedita

sister nivedita

Sister Nivedita (Margaret E. Noble , 1867-1911) considered not the withdrawal from the world; but, performing ones duty , while in it, diligently and selflessly, without attachment to consequences –  as the message of the Gita.  

In her very well written book ‘The Web of Indian Life’, under the Chapter: The Gospel of the Blessed one (page 217) , wrote:


The book is nowhere a call to leave the world; but, everywhere an interpretation of common life as the path to that which lies beyond…

That the man who throws away his weapons ; and, permits himself to be slain , un-resisting in the battle , is not the hero , but a sluggard and a coward; that the true seer is he who carries his vision into action , regardless of the consequences to himself. This is the doctrine of the Gita repeated again and again

‘Holding gain and loss as one, prepare for the battle’. That indifference to results is the condition of efficient action is the first point in its philosophy… It is the supreme imperative. Play thy whole part in the drama of time, devoting every energy, concentrating the whole force. “As the ignorant act from selfish motive, so should the wise act unselfishly.”

[Eminent Orientalists: Indian, European and American. pages 268-269]

: – The Nationalists in the Freedom movement

While the Theosophists tried to provide allegorical and esoteric interpretations of Gita as spiritual struggles, the Nationalists in the Colonial India of the 19th and early 20th century mainly from Bengal and Maharashtra saw it in quite another manner.

The freedom movement gave a great impetus to the study of Gita. Many saw it as a national symbol that held within its bosom answers to the burning questions of colonial India. The Key word from the Gita taken by the nationalists was Loka-sangraha – welfare or involvement in the world. That phrase occurs only two times in the Gita (3.20, 25).

Then,  there also came into use an  expression that is not found in the Gita . It gained much currency in the 20th century – Nish-Kama-karma, self-less action.

Linking of these concepts with national movement for Independence and social reforms did much to bring forth Gita into popular debates. The nationalists promoted Gita as a central work of a rising Indian national ethos.

It is indeed remarkable that so many of India’s political and intellectual leaders of the last century and a half wrote detailed and extensive commentaries on the Gita. There were two broad categories of interpretations.

One; as a sort of romantic allegorical  visions of the battle against forces of lower tendencies such as greed, ego, selfishness etc; and, the other, as an authentic source of state craft that prompted to reconsider the nature of politics itself .

The latter, led to gathering support for reform efforts and for justifying a fight against the British rule for attaining independence.


Among the former category, Bamkim Chandra Chattopadyaya (1836-1894) provided great inspiration for the National movement, giving impetus to the concept of Motherland as the Goddess India, Mother India. He also depicted Krishna as the ideal person who exemplifies human virtues – a god-like person who was earthly wise and sublimely spiritual in his core. He projected Gita as an answer to West’s technological domination; and as India’s stand asserting  the merits of  ancient wisdom in the face of colonial oppression.

AurobindoSri Aurobindo, who followed Bamkim Chandra, regarded Gita as an absolutely splendid revelation holding forth a Universal message.  He advised that Gita should be approached by forgetting all the religious and academic arguments that highlight or decry one Yoga (paths) or the other. The integrated vision of the Gita, he said, transcends all such limited interpretations.  He envisioned  Gita as a divine action, where the battle field (Krukshetra) is in the heart and soul of every human being. Each one of us, potentially brave, fights in his or her own way with the confronting doubts, desperation, fears and frustrations. Krishna is the one, hidden behind the veils of our psyche and mind, who reveals the mysteries of life. Sri Aurobindo stressed that in the present age it was necessary to understand the Dharma, Karma and Yogas in contemporary sense.


The more militant among the Indian nationalists projected India as the Motherland and Krishna as Avatar who rescued the nation from jaws of A-dharma and to establish Dharma. They accepted the call of the Gita for righteous struggle for national independence, even if it might require violence.  The new battlefield, according to them, was the British Raj; and , they found in Gita a strong support for engaged social and political action, the karma yoga.


Lokamanya Bal Gangaadhar Tilak, who at that time was imprisoned in Burma, presented Gita as an allegory for fighting a just war (Dharma-yuddha) that historical circumstances had forced upon Indian nation and Indian people. In Tilak’s view, interpretation of a religious work like the Gita must be historically situated. He vehemently argued for an activist or “energist” reading of Krishna’s teachings, against the older “escapist” Vedanta interpretations. And, in the present age , he asserted, the Gita must be interpreted in accordance with its needs.  Like Aurobindo, Tilak accepts that this action might include violence, provided it is carried out without hatred and without any desire to reap the fruit of the violent deeds. He also admits : But herein lies a quandary of dharma.

It needs to be mentioned ; even  while calling for a just war (Dharma-yuddha), these commentaries  did maintain a sense of composure and detachment. Just as Arjuna did not regard his warring cousins as foes, the British were also  not targeted as the ‘enemy’; not because of fear, but in the interest of generating a broad theoretical principle for establishing a basis  for their political ideology and its strategy. Such an approach allowed Indian leaders to outline a political framework that would serve them well even beyond and after imperialism.

At the same time, at the ground level, there were also groups, organized or otherwise, that believed in disruptive violence as the effective means for overthrowing the alien imperialist power. 

In either case, the Gita provided a stable point of conceptual references, even while there was a range of multiple interpretations on the related issues.

[The practical question for Tilak and other activist leaders was how to mobilize larger masses on behalf of the struggle for an independent Indian nation. Throughout his career, Tilak experimented with ways to enlist the Indian population in this effort. In the 1890s, he transformed a local Maharashtrian festival for the god Ganesha into a large public celebration; and , he established a new festival to honor Shivaji.

Similar methods were adopted in Bengal by transforming  Durga-Puja into a national festival. And, in Punjab , Baishaki was turned into a celebration for all.]


[ Prof. Hephzibah Israel concludes:

Both European and Indian translators, by choosing to translate the Bhagavad-Gita, established it as the quintessential “Hindu” text and as a representative of a highly complex quasi-philosophical and quasi-mystical text which conferred on Hinduism status as a “world religion.”

While for Orientalist scholars, the translated Bhagavad-Gita was proof of an ancient and glorious “civilization,”.

For missionary translators, the Bhagavad-Gita was a philosophical text ; and not necessarily a sacred   “scripture.”

However, for the Indian translators, also mostly practicing Hindus, translating the Bhagavad-Gita was simultaneously an appropriate gesture and an opportunity to compete in the world hierarchy of “religions”: having for centuries preserved the Bhagavad-Gita in the exclusive Sanskrit. The Indian scholar-translators were embracing the opportunity to translate the text mostly into English rather than into other Indian languages.

While some translators, argue that they translate to educate fellow-Indians, to spread the “truths” of Hinduism to Indians, ,, their energies seem directed equally at non-Indian readers.

The appropriation of translation as a strategy to re-present Hinduism was a response to the Universal idea of religions that has often been played out through assumptions about their translatability. This deployment of translation has been an important factor in the formulation of resistant alternative colonial discourses.]


: – Gandhi


Though all the nationalist leaders agreed that purposeful action was needed to attain independence, the form that such action should take, however, remained a point of heated contention. This is where the faith and the views of Mohandas Gandhi become very significant.

Gandhi often referred to the Bhagavad-Gita as his “spiritual reference book” ; “dictionary of daily reference”; “book of home remedies”; “wish-granting cow”;  and, as “mother”. He returned to it over and over again throughout his life for clarification and nurture. He spoke and wrote widely on it throughout his career.

Gandhi, in contrast to other major nationalist leaders, held no commitment more important than to his principle of non-violence. But, he ran into a serious interpretive problem because in the course of the Gita Krishna persuades the reluctant warrior Arjuna to take part in an internecine disastrous battle.

Gandhi believed that the message of the Mahabharata itself was the virtues of non-violence; and, the Gita which was but a small segment of it carried a similar message. He wrote:

the author of the Mahabharata has not established the necessity of physical warfare; on the contrary he has proved its futility. He made the victors shed tears of sorrow and repentance; and has left them nothing but legacy of misery.

The question whether the true teaching of the Gita favors violence or non-violence became vitally important to Gandhi. He needed a clear , firm and an honest answer to anchor his faith in his struggle for India’s freedom ; to provide a principled public resistance; and, above all to ensure the authenticity of his inner spiritual life. The Gita, as he understood and practiced, was the foundation of his struggle without hatred, without passion (Nish-Kama-karma) with the attitude ‘mine is but to fight for my meaning, no matter whether I win or lose.’

And, that led Gandhi to offer a particularly distinct interpretation of the Bhagavad-Gita, where Krishna instead of asking Arjuna to fight the war, instructs him to ‘fight the battle within the self; to battle passion and selfishness’.

According to Gandhi, Gita demonstrates the futility of violence; and, its true message is non-violence and peace. At the end of the Mahabharata, nearly everyone on both sides is killed

Gandhi said, it was fought “not to show the necessity or inevitability of war, but to demonstrate the futility of war and violence.” This becomes evident in Shanti Parva, where “at the end, the victor is shown lamenting, and repenting, not only the outcome, but the very idea of causing so much pain, such horribly enormous  devastation and violence”.

Supporting  Gandhi’s view, ‘The Epic’, writes Amartya Sen, ‘ends largely as a tragedy, with a lamentation about death and carnage; and , there is anguish and grief … It is hard not to see in this, something of a vindication of Arjuna’s profound doubts.’

The battlefield, Gandhi argued, must be taken as an interior one, where the forces of good and evil are locked in never-ending struggle.  The Bhagavad-Gita, he said, is not about the battle that is waged on the field of dirt soaked in blood; but, it is about the ever going conflict within the human heart between the forces of good and evil.

Gandhi said; when Krishna asked Arjuna to fight, he meant fighting ones lower impulses; not to cling to its rewards; to overcome any self-interested inclinations; and,  to carry out his own righteous duty. One must be equally disposed to ones enemy as to oneself.

Gandhi based his own authority as an interpreter of the Gita on his personal endeavor “to enforce the meaning in my own conduct for an unbroken period of forty years.” Gandhi also claimed that the Gita was not a Hindu work, but rather one of “pure ethics,” which a person of any faith might read and follow.

Gandhi firmly believed that complete renunciation is not possible without total observance of Ahimsa (non-violence) in every form and shape.

Gandhi said that if one has to fight, one should fight non-violently.  Thus, Violence and denial of violence became major issues for debate and action.

Gandhi’s faith in Ahimsa as the core of the Gita gave rise to Satyagraha , as an effective means to express one’s protest and to offer resistance without indulging in violence. According to him, a Satyagrahi should be willing to die like a soldier (Kshatriya) for the cause of India’s independence. Satyagraha was Gandhi’s unique contribution to fight against oppression and injustice.

This was in sharp contrast to the interpretation offered by the leaders of India’s nationalist movement such as Sri Aurobindo and others to fight a just war for liberating the Motherland. In fact, during Second War Sri Aurobindo called on Indian people to support the British in its war efforts and fight along with the British against fascist Germany.

: – Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley

Similarly, in Aldous Huxley’s famous introduction to the translation of the Gita by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood (The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita, Hollywood: M. Rodd Co., 1944) which was published just after the end of World War II, the questions of war, violence gained special significance. Writing in the midst of a war of destruction and violence on an unprecedented scale, Huxley re-read and re-imagined the Gita in a mode which rejected the utter need to kill. He, like Gandhi, emphasized that the true message of the Gita is not violence; but, on the contrary, the futility and uselessness of violence, self-destruction; and, the harm it can bring upon whole generations.


On July 16, 1945, at the dawning of the atomic age, J. Robert Oppenheimer watched the first human-controlled atomic explosion at Los Alamos, New Mexico, from a bunker twenty miles away. As director of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer was responsible for overseeing the creation of the bomb, which the project called “Trinity.” He was a brilliant professional physicist, and also a gifted amateur student of Sanskrit. As he observed the awesome detonation of Trinity, Oppenheimer later recalled that passages from the Bhagavad Gita sprang to his mind.

If the radiance of a thousand suns / Were to burst at once into the sky / That would be like the splendor / Of the Mighty One … / I am become Death / The shatterer of worlds

Divi surya sahastrasya bhaved yugapad utthita / Yadi bhah sadrashi sa syat bhasastasya mahatmanah (BG.11.12)

kālo ’smi lokakayakt pravddho / lokān samāhartum iha pravtta/ te ’pi tvā na bhaviyanti sarve/ye ’vasthitā pratyanīkeu yodhāḥ  (BG.11.32)


: – Allegorical Interpretations

Since the early periods the allegorical interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita have been in vogue, by looking upon Kurukshetra as not a mere geographical region or historic battle.

Abhinavagupta, in his Gitartha-sangraha, a commentary on Bhagavad-Gita, refers to a tradition of interpreting Kurushetra as zone of war that takes place between the righteous and un-righteous tendencies within the human body.  According to him, Kurushetra is something more than a geographical venue where a battle took place among the cousins and their supporters.

Similar allegorical interpretations of the Gita became quite a regular feature by the turn of the nineteenth century; and it has been carried forward ever since. Such interpretations fall in to two broad categories: One, to battle against forces of lower tendencies such as greed, ego, selfishness etc; and, the other, to gather support for reform efforts and for justifying a fight against the British rule for attaining independence.

For Sri Aurobindo, ‘the physical fact of war is only an outward manifestation of a general principle of life. The war symbolizes all aspects of struggle that takes place all the time, both in our inner and outer living.. Life is a battle and a field of death; this is Kurukshetra’.

For Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Kurushetra signified Dharmakshetra, a just war against oppressive foreign rule.

Edwin Arnold too referred to Kurukshetra as human body, the field where Life disports.

Gandhi followed Arnold’s interpretation that Kurukshetra is where an eternal struggle is taking place within us.


The present-day

In the present day, the discussions about Bhagavad-Gita in terms of Advaita – Dvaita; or Jnana-Karma-Bhakti have become very rare. The focus is now more on Gita’s stand on the question of violence; whether it advocates or shuns violence; the efficacy or the moral justification for resorting to violence as a vehicle for expressing one’s protest against the establishment.

There are a notable few who adopted the Gandhian method of Ahimsa to fight against oppression. The celebrated ones among such votaries of non-violence are: the HH the Dalai Lama the spiritual leader of the displaced Tibetans who firmly believes that the all-embracing ‘concept’ of Ahimsa is the proper solution for any human conflict; Dr. Martin Lather King who led the civil disobedience movement against racial discrimination; and, Aung San Suu Kyi the Burmese nationalist leader who influenced by the philosophy of non-violence of the Buddha and of Gandhi chose non-violence as an expedient political tool in her struggle for democracy and human rights.

In India, we have the dauntless lady, Irom Sharmila from Manipur who during August 2016 quit  her 16 long years of fast demanding repealing of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.  We also have Anna Hazare who largely adopted non-violent protests and hunger strikes (a la Gandhi) in his struggles to promote rural development, to increase government transparency, and to investigate and punish corruption in public life etc.  And, there is Medha Patkar, the resolute social activist and social reformer, ever engaged in various protests.  These and such other well-meaning protesters, sadly, have not met with much success.

Apart from these and few others there is hardly any who has earnestly adopted Ahimhsa in her/his struggle against injustice. The Gandhian way seems to be losing its ground in India. This seems to reflect the state of our being; the times we live in; and, the values we cherish.

Let’s take, for instance, the Indian situation.

The India of the present-day is no longer under foreign rule. It is now governed by the political parties elected by the Indian citizens. The question is:  whether one is entitled or justified for expressing dissent in a violent manner. The question was answered by a resounding YES by the Naxalite and such other militant groups. They sought to find moral justification for taking up arms by quoting Bhagavad-Gita.

A similar justification is made out by the Jihadist terrorist groups who, strangely, also quote the Gita for carrying out their violent attacks.

Even the protests involving inter state river-water disputes, social injustice etc is marked by violence and vandalism destroying public property.

: – There are also those who denounce the ‘message of the Gita’ for various reasons.

For instance:

 Mahatma Jotiba Phule (1827-1890) who was a pioneer in raising awareness of the rights of the Shudras and Ati-shudras (OBC and SC, as classified now) regarded Manu Smruti and the Gita as signs of slavery (Gulamgiri).

Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, in his writings on the Gita, insisted that it be seen as a historical work, composed at a certain time, and he criticized those who sought to give it a universal significance. He argued, the Bhagavad Gita was a counter revolutionary. In his essay, Krishna and His Gita, Dr. Ambedkar wrote, ‘The philosophic defense offered by the Bhagavad Gita of the Kshatriya’s duty to kill is, to say the least, puerile.’

The infamous Wendy Doniger has said: “The Bhagavad-Gita is not as nice a book as some Americans think. Throughout the Mahabharata, Krishna goads human beings into all sorts of murderous and self-destructive behaviors such as war. The Gita is a dishonest book.”

And, Meghnad Desai, economist and politician, in his Who wrote Bhagavad-Gita, declared the Gita as ‘unsuitable to modern India’ whose Constitution commits it to ‘a world of social equity and democratic freedoms. The Kurukshetra war was fought over land dispute and Krishna’s sermon to Arjuna to fulfill his caste obligation. The message of the Gita is casteist and misogynist and as such profoundly in opposition to the spirit of modern India.’


: – The other views

There have, therefore, been many intellectuals who condemn what is presumed to be ‘the message of the Gita’.

They question:  how can a spiritual being command one to wage a war knowing well the disaster that a war would bring upon the society at large and on the women and children in particular?

As regards the question of Nishkama karma (selfless action), as the scholar Easwaran writes:

the Gita’s focus is relentlessly on the doer’s attitude while he dispenses his Dharmic duty, not on what he actually does to others and its human impact. Krishna is thus able to ask Arjuna to perform ‘all actions for my sake, completely absorbed in the Self, and without expectations, fight!’

As VR Narla put it, ‘while action without seeking some personal gain can be noble, action without any care for its evil consequences to other men [is] reprehensible, even diabolical.

In The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen too finds this problematic: ‘Krishna argues that Arjuna must do his duty, come what may, and in this case he has a duty to fight, no matter what results from it … Why should we want only to “fare forward” and not also “fare well”?

Many wonder, how could the essential teaching of the great scripture be as simple and blatant as to favor war and violence? These wise scholars sought to encourage the readers/listeners to look beyond the obvious; to delve deep; and , to un-fathom its metaphorical allegorical message.

Such bewilderment stems essentially from anxiety, dilemma and loss of direction; but not necessarily from fear or cowardice.


Apart from the questions of violence and war, the Gita is of much  significance to the present-day world – a reflective person cannot act confidently without a thorough knowledge of the rightness of the motive and effect. Action and knowledge are very efficacious when combined with love or devotion.       

 [Abhinavagupta in his Bhagavadgitarth Samgraha asserts that Jana and karma are not two things.]


The Dynamic way

Whichever way you look at it, the Gita is admirably amenable to multiple interpretations.   Its ‘real meaning’ (whatever be it) need not be restricted to either Jnana or Karma or Bhakti or even to violence or non-violence. The Gita could very well be read without imposing upon it one’s own interpretations. One needs:  to be aware of; to recognize; and, to acknowledge its various other plausible interpretations.

Laurie L .Patton in her essay: The failure of the Allegory – Notes on Textual Violence in Bhagavad Gita ( see under section titled  Beyond Allegory: Toward a Dynamic Interpretation of the Exhortation to Fight) included in the book Fighting Words: Religion, Violence, and the Interpretation of Sacred Texts edited by John Renard , speaks about a ‘dynamic way of reading ’ where one would be constantly aware of the other plausible interpretations  as one chooses a particular interpretation. She concludes her very scholarly discussion on varied interpretations of the Gita with the words:

Read in this way, one can engage many possible meanings of the Gita within the clear boundaries of the verse. However, a reader would not be obsessed with the “real” meaning, nor would she be trapped by the literal meaning or the spiritual meaning, or any other possible meaning in between.


As Erenow questions :

What is the best way to read   the Bhagavad Gita? That will of course depend on the reader. In the Gita, Krishna commends all those who share his teachings with others. Yet we see how this sharing of the Gita can take myriad forms. Just as different translators bring different backgrounds and agendas to their task of rendering Krishna’s message, so readers will themselves bring their own differing aims to the work. Among the great plurality of translations and commentaries, embodying diverse approaches to the Gita, the reader also is called on to select a path. If Krishna is correct, all those various translational paths will indeed lead the reader to him and his words.


The Bhagavad-Gita is not an abstract theological  story, but is a valuable discourse through which are woven many insights, allegories and directions, which provide a broader and a meaningful vision of life. It is particularly relevant when one is placed in the very cauldron of life; facing conflicting situations; and, when one is confronted with multiple choices.

When a society enters chaos, it does not usually return to its earlier status; but, will re-invent itself; and, ushers in a new society with its own moral, cultural and social references.

In the next segment of this article, let us discus in fair detail each of the above streams of the interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita.

Lotus blossoms

Continued in Part Two

References and sources

  1. Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita and Images of the Hindu Tradition: by Catherine A. Robinson
  2. The Bhagavad Gita and the West: The Esoteric Significance of the Bhagavad-Gita by Rudolf Steiner
  3. Exploring the Bhagavad Gitā: Philosophy, Structure, and Meaning by Ithamar Theodor
  4. The Bhagavad Gita: A Text and Commentary for Students by Jeaneane D. Fowler
  5. Fighting Words: Religion, Violence, and the Interpretation of Sacred Texts by John Renard
  6. The Failure of Allegory: Notes on Textual Violence and the Bhagavad Gita by Laurie L. Patton
  7. A Comparative Study of the Commentaries on The Bhagavadgītā by T. G. Mainkar
  8. Bhagavad-Gita in Mahabharata Translated and Edited by J. A. B. van Buitenen
  9. My Gitaby Devdutt Pattanaik
  10. The Bhagavad-Gita and modern thought introduction by Shruti Kapila and Faisal Devji
  1. The quest for objective truth – Modern Indian Interpreters of the Bhagavad Gita Edited by Robert Neil Minor
  2. Who Wrote Bhagavad-Gita by Meghnad Desai
  3. Da’ud ibn Tamam ibn Ibrahim al-Shawn – The Bhagavad Gita interpreted – Edited by Daud Shawni
  4. A History of Indian Philosophy, Volume 2 by Dr. Surendranath Dasgupta



Posted by on October 14, 2016 in Bhagavad-Gita, General Interest


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The bizarre story of Madhavi of the ancient times

This is a story of ancient times that appears in Udyoga Parva (sections 119-122) of Mahabharata. It is a story that is uncoiled in four stages. Initially, Narada narrated it to Dhritarastra, which Vyasa recorded; Vaishampayana narrates that to Janamejaya; and finally Suti recites the entire epic.

Narada’s narration comes about as an extension to his own story of fall owing to his conceit and arrogance. It is incidental; and not integrated into the Epic. It is not supported by any other narration in the Epic.

The story raises many uncomfortable questions about the status and treatment of women in a society of a bygone era, which was guided by its own set of values. The fascinating but disturbing episode has been studied, in depth, by scholars, feminists and dramatists from sociological, psychological and various other angles.

Mahabharata (in contrast to Ramayana) is a complex composition spread over several layers , across varied periods; and, its elements are derived from diverse parts of the ancient Indian land. It also is not entirely the work of a single person. It has grown in stages across many traditions. Like the Indian jungle, it spreads out in an endless wilderness of trees entwined with creepers of bewildering sorts, inhabited by an astonishing variety of creatures, birds and beasts. It is a wonder piled upon wonders. There are several contradictions arrayed , one by the side of the other. Mahabharata is not one book; but, it is many books running into each other.

With that , let’s, first, look at the story in its brief and summarized form; and then discuss some of the issues it throws up.

The story

1.1. It is said that Galava was a very devoted pupil of the sage – King- teacher Visvamitra. He stayed and served loyally even when his teacher was passing through difficult circumstances. At the end of the academic period, the teacher, pleased with the pupil, blessed him and let him go. But Galava requested the teacher to state the fee (guru- dakshina) that he would accept. The teacher was content; but the pupil pressed on earnestly. Finally, with a little displeasure, as it were, Visvamitra asked Galava ‘present me with eight hundred white steeds of good pedigree; white as the rays of the radiant moon, and every one of it having one ear black in hue. Go Galava, delay not ’.

Ektaha shamkarna hayana chandravarchasam, Ashto shatani me dehi gaccha Galav ma Chiram- (Udog, 106;27)


1.2. Galava promptly sets out in search of such rare type of horses ; but,he  was unable to find any. While he was brooding in desperation, his friend Suparna offered help; and, took him to many kings who might possibly possess horses of such rare description. After much wandering, the two reached the court of King Yayati of Prathistana. Suparna, on behalf of his friend, submitted the plea and requested the king to help Galava to be free from the burden of Guru-dakshina.

But, the King Yayati, whose wealth by then had depleted, had no horses that satisfied their specification. Nevertheless, he, as a king, would not disappoint a needy one who came seeking help. Therefore, he gifted, instead, his beautiful daughter Madhavi (also called Drishadvati); and, suggested that by setting her as price they could secure from any king/s who owned the horses of their required specifications. Yayati added;  Madhavi was capable of promoting every virtue (mādhavī nāma tārkṣyeyaṃ sarva-dharma-pravādini); and , her beauty was so striking that any king would gladly give up his kingdom, if it were needed, to be with her even for a short while.

asyāḥ śulkaṃ pradāsyanti nṛpā rājyam api dhruvam/kiṃ punaḥ śyāmakarṇānāṃ hayānāṃ dve catuḥśate – (Udyog, 113; 13)

Now, that there appeared a ray of hope, Suparna wished his friend well and took leave of him.

2.1. Galava first thought of the best of the kings, Haryasva of Ikshvaku race who ruled at Ayodhya. He was famed for his valour, wealth and large army. Galava offered Madhavi in marriage to the childless king Haryasva, in exchange for ‘eight hundred steeds’ born in good country, of lunar whiteness, and each with one ear black in hue’, saying ‘this auspicious and large eyed maiden will become mother of thy sons’. The king is struck with the beauty of Madhavi (rājā haryaśvaḥ kāmamohitaḥ).  He observes  that the six parts of this girl’s body which ought to be high are high, seven parts which ought to be slender are slender, three parts which ought to be deep are deep and five which ought to be red are red.  Upon her resides every auspicious  sign. 

unnateṣūnnatā ṣaṭsu; sūkṣmā sūkṣmeṣu saptasu; gambhīrā triṣu gambhīreṣv ; iyaṃ raktā ca pañcasu; śroṇyau lalāṭakakṣau ca ghrāṇaṃ ceti ṣaḍunnatam (Udyog, 05,114.002

Haryasva cried out “I most desire to have this beautiful maiden; but, sadly I have only two hundred steeds of the kind you wanted. He pleads with Galava – asyām etaṃ bhavān kāmaṃ saṃpādayatu me varam (Udyog; 114.9) – Let me fulfill my desire.  I beg you; allow me to beget one son upon this damsel and you make take away all those two hundred steeds”.

2.2. Madhavi intervened and suggested to Galava “I am blessed by a sage with a special faculty that each time after childbirth I will regain my virginity. Accept the offer made by King Haryasva; take his two hundred excellent steeds and let him beget one son upon me. Thereafter you may collect me and take me to the next king and to another, in similar manner, until you obtain all your eight hundred steeds. And, that should set you free from the debt you owe to your teacher”.

mama datto varaḥ kaś cit kena cid brahmavādinā / prasūtyante prasūtyante kanyaiva tvaṃ bhaviṣyasi/sa tvaṃ dadasva māṃ rājñe pratigṛhya hayottamān / nṛpebhyo hi caturbhyas te pūrṇāny aṣṭau śatāni vai / bhaviṣyanti tathā putrā mama catvāra eva ca/kriyatāṃ mama saṃhāro gurvarthaṃ dvija sattama (Udyog; 114.11-13)

That idea seemed to be a workable arrangement; and,  was acceptable both to Galava and the King. Galava became the owner of those two hundred steeds; but he let them continue in king’s care. In due time, Haryasva had a son by Madhavi. She thereafter, by the power of her wish, turned into a virgin again. The new born was as splendid as one of the Vasus; and was named Vasumanasa (also called Vasuprada – vasumanā nāma vasubhyo vasumattaraḥ; vasuprakhyo narapatiḥ sa babhūva vasupradaḥ). He later grew up to be one of the wealthiest and greatest of the benefactors among all the kings.

2.3. Galava next took Madhavi to Divodasa King of Kashi of great valor  having a large army (mahāvīryo mahīpālaḥ kāśīnām īśvaraḥ prabhuḥ;divodāsa iti khyāto bhaimasenir narādhipaḥ). Divodasa had already heard of Madhavi’s extraordinary beauty as also of her story (śrutam etan mayā pūrvaṃ). He rejoiced greatly upon the fortune to be with her. But, he too had only two hundred such steeds that Galava required. He agreed to beget only one a son from Madhavi in exchange for those two hundred steeds. Madhavi lived with Divodasa till a son was born to her. He was named Pratardana , who later became a celebrated hero (mādhavī janayām āsa putram ekaṃ pratardanam) . Madhavi having regained her virginity left her second son with his father and returned to Galava.

2.4. The next was, King Ushinara of Bhojanagari (jagāma bhojanagaraṃ draṣṭum auśīnaraṃ nṛpam) , who also had only two hundred of such horses. He handed then over to Galava and lived with Madhavi till a son named Sibi was born (he later gained renown as the upholder of truth and justice – śibir nāmna ābhivikhyāto yaḥ sa pārthivasattamaḥ). Madhavi turned a virgin once again.

2.5. Thereafter Galava collected Madhavi back from King Ushinara.  By then , Madhavi had three sons : pratardano vasumanāḥ śibir auśīnaro . But, Galava had so far gathered only six hundred horses, and still needed two hundred more to fulfil the commitment to his teacher. Then, his friend Suparna (Garuda) informs there were no more such horses; but makes a suggestion. As suggested by Suparna, Galava submits to his teacher the six hundred horses he had so far gathered, with a request to accept Madhavi in place of the remaining two hundred horses; and absolve him of the Guru-dakshina.

Visvamitra elated at the prospect of having Madhavi, accepts the offer gleefully  and discharges the pupil of his obligation –

viśvāmitras tu taṃ dṛṣṭvā gālavaṃ saha pakṣiṇā/kanyāṃ ca tāṃ varārohām idam ity abravīd vacaḥ/kim iyaṃ pūrvam eveha na dattā mama gālava (Udog, 117;14-15) pratigṛhṇāmi te kanyām ekaputraphalāya vai/aśvāś cāśramam āsādya tiṣṭhantu mama sarvaśaḥ

Madhavi bore to Visvamitra a son named Ashtaka –  ātmajaṃ janayām āsa mādhavīputram aṣṭakam (Ashtaka later gained fame as the king who performed grand Ashva-medha yajnas).

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3.1. With his debt discharged, Galava retires into the forest. As he departs, he thanks Madhavi for saving him, as also her father and the three childless kings: ” Oh Madhavi, the beautiful maiden, You have borne one son who will be a lordly giver, a second a hero, another fond of truth and right; and yet another a great performer of Yajnas. Farewell to you, virgin of slim waist”.

jāto dānapatiḥ putras tvayā śūras tathāparaḥ/satyadharmarataś cānyo yajvā cāpi tathāparaḥ/tad āgaccha varārohe tāritas te pitā sutaiḥ/catvāraś caiva rājānas tathāhaṃ ca sumadhyame (Udyog; 117.22)

After sometime, Visvamitra retreats into the forest. He hands over the six hundred horses to his son Ashtaka; and , sends Madhavi back to her father Yayati.

Yayati tries to arrange for Madhavi’s wedding, as many suitors (including the three kings who had sons from her) were eager to marry her. But, Madhavi is no longer interested in marriage or childbearing. She refuses all offers and retires into the forest as a hermit.

3.2. The recurring virgin Madhavi is not sovereign herself; but sovereignty passes through her to her four sons who grow up to become great kings whose deeds are celebrated in the Puranas.

In the end, everyone except Madhavi had something to gain: Yayati had the satisfaction of helping a needy person; the three childless kings beget worthy sons and heirs; Visvamitra gained six hundred of rarest horses as also the pleasure of living with the beautiful Madhavi; and, Galava extolled for his guru-bhakthi was relieved of the obligation to his teacher.

Madhavi’s salvation lies in her silence and her retreat into the woods. She prefers to select forest as her consort – Varam Vrivati Vanam (Udog, 120;5). Madhavi entered the forest, lived a peaceful life of a celibate –  ‘living in the woods after the manner of the deer ’

carantī hariṇaiḥ sārdhaṃ mṛgīva vanacāriṇī/ cacāra vipulaṃ dharmaṃ brahmacaryeṇa saṃvṛtā (Udyog, 118; 11)

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Question of antiquity

4.1. Though the story of the ‘salvation of the kings by a maiden’ is re-told in Mahabharata, its principle characters come from the distant Pre-Vedic or early Vedic times.

[ In the Tevijja-Sutta: The Threefold Knowledge (Digha-nikaya, I.No.13), the Buddha distinguishes between the later Brahmana-teachers and the earlier Vedic-sages. Among these sages, the Buddha regards just ten as the ancient; as the true authors and the Rishis of the Riks.

The ten Rishis mentioned by the Buddha are: Astaka; Vamaka; Vamadeva; Visvamitra; Jamadagni; Angirasa; Bharadvaja; Vashista; Kashyapa; and , Brighu.

Astaka, mentioned by the Buddha as one among the ancient Sages, is said to be one of the sons of Madhavi, the daughter of the King Yayathi. ]

Yayati, the son of the legendry King Nahusha, is a prominent figure in the early Indian mythological history. He is progenitor of a great dynasty Chandravamsa – that ruled for countless generations stretching up to the Pandavas and far beyond.

 Please click here for the family tree of  the Yadus and the Purus – the descendents of Yayati . 

4.2. Yayati marks a watershed in the ancient Indian history. He is credited with bringing together two rival factions of the Angirasas and the Brighus. Yayati, a follower of the Angirasa, married Devayani the daughter of Shukracharya of the Bhrigu clan; and also married Sharmishta the daughter of Vrisha Parvan, the King of Asuras, who also was a follower of the Bhrigus.

4.3. Turvasha and Yadu were sons of Yayati by Devayani of the Bhrigus; while Anu, Druhyu and Puru were his sons by Sharmishta of the Asuras. Yayati’s story indicates that the five great lines of Vedic rulers were born of an alliance of Deva and Asura kings, which also meant the coming together of the followers of the Angirasa and the Bhrigu seers. Yayti’s marriage with the Bhrigu women was perhaps an attempt to reconcile two warring clans.

Yayati divided his kingdom among his five sons: to Tuvasha he gave the south-east; to Druhyu the west; to Yadu the south and west in the Narmada – Godavari region; to Anu the north; and to Puru the centre . Purus ruled as the Supreme Kings of earth.

The ‘Battle of Ten Kings’ (Dasarajna) described in the seventh Mandala of the Rig Veda was fought between the Puru clan and the Turvasha/Druhyu/Anu clans. The Kings involved in the Battle: Puru, Turvasha, Druhyu and Anu were all sons of Yayati.

4.4. The episode of ‘the eight hundred horses’ which we are now discussing mentions the hitherto un-named daughter of Yayati – Madhavi (but, her mother’s name is not mentioned).

Further, the Sukta No. 179  having three verses in  the Tenth Mandala of Rig Veda invoking Indra, is jointly ascribed to the three sons of Madhavi:

the first is Sibi the son of Ushinara (prathamo ushinarah Sibihi –  शिबिरौशीनरः );

the second Pratardana King of Kashi (dwithiyo kasirajah Pratardanaha- प्रतर्दनः काशिराजः); and,

the third Vasumanasa son of Rauhidasva (thrithiyasha Rauhidashwo Vasumana rishihi – वसुमना रौहिदश्वः) .

In this Sukta, Haryasva   is named as Rauhidasva.

Mantra Rig 10.179.001 ;  Mantra Rig 10.179.002  ;  Mantra Rig 10.179.003 ]

Madhavi’s story surfaces in Mahabharata. But she belongs to the very far-away pre-Vedic period. That is the reason I regard her story as of very ancient times.

5.1. As regards Visvamitra, there were many kings and sages who went by that name. Visvamitra who appears in the Madhavi-story may not be the same as the one who figures in the third Mandala of Rig Veda who envisioned the celebrated Gayatri Mantra; or the Visvamitra of Aitareya Brahmana, the adopted father of Sunashepa; or the father of Shakuntala; or even the quick-tempered sage in the Harischandra story.

5.2. This Visvamitra of Kanyakubja in the Madhavi-story may not also be the Visvamitra of Ramayana epic. Because, in the linage of kings (according to Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Puranas ; Vol 1 to Vol 5 by Swami Parameshwarananada ; page 187) Rama , son of Dasaratha comes almost fifty generations after Haryasva the King of Ayodhya , the father of  Vasumanasa . Some names of the kings have either gone missing or are unclear.

[ Haryasva – Vasumanasa – Sudhanva – Tridhanva (Tirvashana ) – Satyavrata (Trisanku) – Harischandra – Rohitasva – Harita – Chanchu – Sudeva – Bharuka – Bahuka – Sagara – Asamanjasa – Amsuman – Bhagiratha – Srutanabha – Vedhasa – Para – Nabhaga – Ambarisha – Sindhudweepa – Ayutayus – Rtuparna – Sarvakama – Sudasa – Mitrasakha (Kalmasapada ) – Asmaka – Mulaka – Khatvariga – Dilipa (Dlrghabariu) – Raghu – Aja – Dasaratha – Rama ].

Please also see the chart at the bottom of this blog.

You may click here for its complete and enlarged version for tracing the line of kings from Manu to Ikshvaku to   Mahabharata

Question of feminism

6.1. The Madhavi episode is roundly criticized in the recent times as being insensitive to a woman’s feelings, depriving her of any inner space or desire, and wiping out her very individuality as a person. She is robbed of any control over her life. Horses, it appeared, were valued more than women. And women were given away to get hold of good horses, which is shocking.    Madhavi is led just as a cow from one male to the other, traded for horses, impregnated and each time leaving behind her newborn. At the end, she is neither a wife nor a mother – despite having lived with four men and delivering to four boys.

That is a valid view, up to a point.

7.1. There is also an alternate view which is based in a field of study called Hermeneutics. It speaks of understanding a text by placing it in the context of its times and the society in which it was located; appreciating the cultural and social forces that might have influenced its outlook. Which is to say: before we impose our own set of perceptions or apply our the present-day standards of the rights and privileges accorded to women in our society, in order to judge Madhavi, lets pause and place her story in the context of her times and the norms that were evolved and accepted by that society in the environment of its own life patterns.

7.2. There is nothing lewd about the episode, by the manner it is depicted in the Epic. Everyone here is earnest, attempting to live honestly with a pious intent: Galava to fulfil his obligation to his teacher; Yayati to discharge his duty as the King providing for the needy who comes to him seeking help; and, Madhavi considers her   filial duty to save her father from disgrace; and in the process   to assist a dedicated student to fulfil his promise to his teacher, and to rescue of royal lines from dynastic extinction. And, she herself, in all her earnestness, suggests the arrangement of her exchange for horses.

7.3. The kings who figure in her life did not consider their relation with Madhavi as scandalous. The society in which she lived treated her with great respect. Her sons who were aware of their birth antecedents proudly called themselves the sons of Madhavi. The fact that they were the sons of the common wife of four kings did not prevent them from succeeding to thrones of their fathers. In fact, Sibi and Ashtaka were made kings by preference over the sons of their fathers’ individual wives

7.4. When her sons met her again after they had grown into fine young men, they greeted their mother with great reverence: “those monarchs saluted her and bowed down to her ‘O the abode of asceticism (tapodhane) , instruct us all thy sons, what command of yours shall we obey’ ”.

mādhavīṃ prekṣya rājānas te ‘abhivādyedam abruvan/kim āgamanakṛtyaṃ te kiṃ kurvaḥ śāsanaṃ tava/ājñāpyā hi vayaṃ sarve tava putrās tapodhane /  (Udyog, 119; 2)

Madhavi introduces herself to her father, at the hour of his need, as his daughter (duhitā ), a forest – dweller (mṛgacāriṇī) – ahaṃ te duhitā rājan Mādhavī mṛgacāriṇī .  Andat her command, her four sons help their grandfather Yayati  to ascend to heaven, again.

“It was thus that those daughter’s sons born in four royal lines, those multipliers of their races, by means of their virtues, sacrifices, and gifts, caused their maternal grandfather to ascend again to heaven. And those monarchs jointly said, ‘Endued with the attributes of royalty and possessed of every virtue, we are, O king, thy daughter’s sons! By virtue of our good deeds, ascend thou to heaven. ” (Mbh:  Udyoga Parva; section 122)

Yayati_ascend_to_Heaven (1)

7.5. Madhavi’s character, as I see it, is invested with a certain air of dignity. She had been true to her independent nature, fulfilling her womanhood in a manner she found appropriate in the given circumstances. Her unsullied and detached attitude to her unique encounters with four men perhaps defines her ‘virgin’ status. At the end of the episode she exercises her choice without disgust, rancor or regret; and retires into the woods.

8.1. The social ethos, the concept of marriage, the status and the treatment of women reflected in the Madhavi-story belong to those very ancient pre-Vedic times (perhaps older than 2,500 BC).They pre-date the Mahabharata – event period by several centuries. The society did not remain static during those centuries. It went through a prolonged process of evolution. The Rig Veda period that followed Madhavi’s time marked a watershed; and its society was in transformation.

Further, the Mahabharata-society was far different from the Vedic society. The values, norms and idioms of social conduct changed not merely during those centuries but also during the course of the Mahabharata story. You find in the Epic, each stage evolving into its next phase.

That is the reason the social values as reflected in early parts of the Epic are far different from those at its end-parts. Which in turn, were indeed much different from the customs that came into vogue at later times.

Those differences should not be seen as contradictions or aberrations, but be understood as marking changes in the evolution or the flow of the Indian society.

It is interesting, how the perceptions and values change in a society over long periods. They are usually born out of interactions between responses and challenges or demands of the times

On certain issues, the Pre-Vedic and Vedic women enjoyed a kind of liberty and social approval which was not available to the subsequent generations of women. And, some of the liberties of the Madhavi-period are not available to the present-day Indian women.

8.2. Generally, Mahabharata depicts a steady degradation or degeneration of what was once a cohesive society that cherished liberal values. The society in the early period of Mahabharata was more open than our present day society. But, as the Epic stepped into its later generations, the views and values got rigid. That downward trend, sadly, continued for long centuries (we shall come back to this theme later).

Question of recurring virginity

9.1. Madhavi mentions that she is gifted with a boon by virtue of which she will regain her virginity each time after she gives birth to a child (kanyaiva tvam bhavishyasi : Mbh.5.114.11).

Such wondrous instances of  women retaining or regaining  their maidenhood are found elsewhere in Mahabharata.

Satyavathi cajoled Sage Parashara into promising “when you have done me this favour you shall become a maiden again (garbham utsrijya mamakam . . . kanyaiva tvam bhavishyasi; Mbh: 1.105.13)”. She again (punar) became a virgin after giving birth to Vyasa.

 Kunti also became a maid each time after delivering to a son (punar eva tu kanyabhavam; Mbh: 15. 30.16).

Both Satyavathi and Kunti gained that unique faculty through boons conferred on them by the sages.

9.2. Draupadi too, despite having five husbands and bearing five sons, is regarded as a knaya – a maid or a virgin- emerging chaste like polestar after each encounter :  the lovely one with glorious waist , the very mighty one , at the end of each day shall become a maid again’(Mbh: 1.197.14) .

Kunti describes Draupadi to Krishna as sarva-dharmopa-carinam (the one who promotes or cultivates all virtues), in the very term used by Yayati to describe Madhavi while gifting her to Galava.

10.1. Obviously, virginity was regarded very precious in the Epics .Only a few virtuous women were blessed with the faculty of retaining or regaining maidenhood. Similar notions of valuing virgin –status exist in other religions too.

For instance; virginity is a recurring theme in the Bible which looks upon the mother of Jesus as a virgin. In Judaism there is much discussion about the virgins in the temples.

And, Islam too believes that a man who enters paradise will be received by 72 virgins.

The Shakta-Tantra cult worships virgin as a complete person who has the ‘whole potential of the total-human being’ (combination of Shiva and Shakthi); and, as the untapped source of life-energy, the ‘holding back of the potential procreative power’.

10.2. The treatment of virginity in the older texts is again a much contested issue. Many have argued that such notions of continued or restored maidenhood were evidently moral or legal fictions invented, at a later period, merely to disguise the murky cases of promiscuity, free license or strange relations that were neither rape nor adultery. Or, at best, it might have been a self-deceiving, make-believe reflexes or opinions, reluctant to accept the stark fact.

10.3. The classic view of the scholars, however, converged on the understanding that virginity in those contexts does not refer to the state of their bodies but to the state of their being. It was said; virginity here does not refer to the physical condition but to the unsullied mind and attitude of those remarkable women. It is a state distinguished by purity, detachment and independence.

It is explained; when these women in Mahabharata, who knew more than one man and bore children, were respected by the ancients as kanyas, that was meant to suggest  they were psychologically pure and untainted. Those women learnt to sublimate their ego. And yet, they were independent women enjoying an identity of their own.

Therefore, the status of Kanya also referred to the way they fiercely asserted their independence. Each one of those does whatever had to be done out of a sense of duty; and she is true to herself and to her nature. Each one’s life was authentic.

10.4. A common feature among the kanyas of Mahabharata is that they all had to endure countless difficulties. And, yet these ‘women of substance’ were not broken down by personal tragedies. Each went on to live with a certain pride around her. But, there was a sense of loneliness that surrounded them despite being placed amidst their men and offspring.

11.1. And, that is echoed by M. Esther Harding who writes in Woman’s Mysteries [Rider, 1971, p. 125- 126]

“the woman who is psychologically virgin is not dependent; she is what she is because that is what she is … (she is) one-in-herself (and) does what she does not because of any desire to please, not to be liked or to be approved even by herself but because what she does is true. Her actions may, indeed, be unconventional “.

M. Esther Harding again makes a telling observation:

“He does not know the difference before love and after love, before motherhood and after motherhood…Only a woman can know that and speak of that. …She must always be as her nature is. She must always be maiden and always be mother. Before every love she is a maiden, after every love she is a mother.”

She elsewhere while talking of purity of love says “Every Mother is a virgin. She is pure in love to her child. Every child comes out of pure love”.

11.2. How well this illustrates Madhavi’s life and her experiences with men. The disinterested series of marriages and childbearing came about as a necessity. She looked upon it as her filial duty to save her father from disgrace; as assistance to an earnest student to fulfil his promise to his teacher; and as rescue of royal lines from dynastic extinction.


Question of Motherhood

12.1. In the Epic, Draupadi had to live with five men, while Kunti had to endure momentary involvements; and the case of Madhavi lies somewhere in between the two. Madhavi had to live with four men; but, in succession, each for about nine months. The significant difference among the three was their motherhood.

12.2. Kunti treated with much respect in the Epic is projected as heroic mother who protected and guided her children on the right path.

In the case of Draupadi the mother of five sons, sadly, there is not much discussion in the Epic about her motherhood. Her five sons are mere names of the boys who appear on the scene very late in the Epic, only to be slaughtered while asleep. They perhaps lived their childhood and brief adolescence in Panchala under the care of their maternal uncle and grandfather while Draupadi was in exile serving her five husbands. It is particularly sad that her husbands  could neither protect her well nor offer her the honour and respect that a woman should have as a wife and a mother. All that they succeeded was in making her a Queen.


12.3. Madhavi could not be a wife and a mother, in true sense. She had to be a mother ‘technically’. Each tine after a childbirth, she is separated from the infant’s father; and she has also no opportunity to nurse the infant, to care for him and bring him up to manhood. The emphasis of her life seems to be elsewhere. Her detachment is not by choice; but forced upon her by circumstances.

13.1. There are instances in the Epic of women giving up their newborn, of their own freewill, as in the case of Ganga (Bhishma), Satyavati (Vyasa), Kunti (Karna) and the Apsaras: Urvashi (Ayu) and Menaka (Shakuntala).There are also instances of women who were denied motherhood because their offspring were snatched away from them.

The most well-known of such tragic cases is Devaki who was forced to surrender all her newborn. It is not Devaki but Yashodha the foster mother of Krishna that is celebrated in songs and legends as the very icon of loving motherhood.

 In that sense, Madhavi is closer to Devaki than to the other women of Mahabharata.

14.1. Motherhood and mothering are seen as naturally related. Bringing forth a new life, its protection and nurturing are functions that only womankind can perform. The motherhood is essential for human survival and development. Motherhood is also of profound importance in family structure; that is to say in holding a family together, in building relations within and outside of the family, and in providing stability to life . And these functions are also central to female existence; it involves her body, mind and heart. She, often, regards motherhood as the fulfilment of her life. There is, naturally, enormous reverence, devotion and gratitude to Mother and motherhood.

14.2. Paradoxically, her maternal functions, her life-giving and life-sustaining responsibilities are taken for granted and often undervalued. And, these responsibilities have tied down the woman, excluded her from authority and role in public life. Added to these are the countless taboos on women during menstruation and pregnancy.

14.3. In the case of Madhavi, Devaki and others like them, being ‘mother’ is distinct from motherhood. Some regard that as tragic, because they were deprived of an essential and a most endearing aspect of woman’s life. There are also those who see no reason to be unhappy about such situation; because they view it as the sort of liberation that the women have been searching for.

partnernhm (1)

Question of Many husbands

15.1. As said earlier, Kunti need not have to live with the gods who provided her with sons. But, Draupadi had to live with five husbands all her life. Madhavi had to live with four men; but, in succession, each for about nine months.  Draupadi’s husbands were brothers; and that helped to maintain and strengthen fraternal unity among the Pandavas. While in the case of Madhavi, her men were unconnected and unrelated, excepting that all the four were kings.

15.2. The polyandrous relations that Madhavi and Draupadi had to endure have been much discussed. These two women lived in different eras and were separated by several centuries. In the Pre- Vedic times during which Madhavi lived, polyandry might not have been unusual. But, Draupadi’s polyandry wedding/s was definitely a strange and a startling feature of the then Mahabharata society.

In the long list of the Pandava- ancestors there was no instance of polyandry. Draupadi’s marriage with five brothers did not, therefore, take place in accordance with the then prevailing custom or its old tradition. But, it came about as an extraordinary and an exceptional event.  Later in the Epic, her adversaries miss no opportunity to taunt, ridicule and humiliate her for being the wife of many men.

15.3. Yudhishtira’s proposal asking for Draupadi as the wife of all the five brothers came as rude shock to Drupada, Draupadi’s father; and it almost felled him.  He cried out it in anguish:  it is such an unheard of adharma   and is totally against the normal the codes of behaviour (lokadharma viruddham).

Yet, Yudhishtira attempts to clear Drupada’s bewilderment by lamely citing Vedic instances of Marisha-Varkshi (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.

[In the same episode, Sage Vyasa, in an attempt to convince the beleaguered Drupada, narrates the story of the most beautiful and virtuous Bhaumāśvī, the daughter of King Sibi of great fame and immense valor. Bhaumāśvī, the best and most auspicious among women, gifted with a sweet voice, melodious as the notes of the Veena. At her Svayamvara, the five valorous sons of the great King Nitantu (Salveya, Srutasena, Surasena, Tindusara and Atisara), bulls among kings, endowed with all good qualities and famous wielders of the bow, all fell desperately in love with the most enchanting Bhaumāśvi.

Ultimately, the five brothers married her, And, Bhaumāśvi as their common wife bore five most heroic sons. And, their descendants gained fame as: Salveyaas, Surasenas, Srutasenas, Tindusaras and Atisaras

In this manner, listen Oh Great King, Bhaumasvi, celebrated on earth as the most virtuous woman   became the common wife for five of Kings.

In the same manner,  your daughter of divine form, the blameless Parshati, Krishnaa is destined to be the wife of five Pandavas. 

etān naitantavān pañca śaibyā cātra svayaṃvare / avāpa sā patīn vīrān bhaumāśvī manujādhipān / vīṇeva madhurārāvā gāndhāra-svaramūrcchitā / uttamā sarva-nārīṇāṃ bhaumāśvī hy abhavat tadā /   yasyā naitantavāḥ pañca patayaḥ kṣatriyar-ṣabhāḥ /   babhūvuḥ pṛthivīpālāḥ sarvaiḥ samuditā guṇaiḥ – 01,189.049d@101_0008 -0013

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

16.1. It appears that polyandry was a relic of the Pre-Vedic era that was linked to ancient Sumer (c.2900 BCE). Rig Veda period, which represents an age of transition, was an open society which fully appreciated the virtues of marriage. The marriage was sanctified with due rituals and ceremony. There is no passage in Rig Veda clearly referring to the custom of polyandry. The practice was known; but mentioned mostly with reference to certain gods. Johann Jacob Meyer in his Sexual Life in Ancient India (Barnes & Noble, inc 1953) remarks (page 108)

“As is well known the polygamy of the man in Aryan India is as old as the hills and does not form the slighted offence in the Brahmanic system, although since Vedic times, indeed, one wife is seen to be the usual, often the obvious thing. On the other hand, polyandry is utterly repugnant to Indian feelings, and in the Epic only one or two cases of it are found, and these are exclusively cases of a community of wives among brothers”.

16.2. The earliest known evidence of polyandry refers to the twins Aswins (Nasatya) who represent the pre-Vedic horsemen known for swiftness and ability to heal. Rig Veda also refers to Rodasi of disheveled hair as Sadharani the common wife of the Maruts: ‘The Maruts cling to their young and radiant wife who belongs to them all’ (RV.1.167.4); ‘ride upon their chariot with winged steeds; the youths have set the maiden wedded to glory’ (RV.1.167.6). The Aswins and the Maruts are gods or mythical figures; and not men of the living society. Such references are inoffensive not scandalous.

According to Dr. Subimal Chandra Sarkar (Some aspects of the earliest social history of India – pre Buddihistic ages; 1924) it is best understood as the relic of a gradually disused custom transformed into allegories. Dr Sarkar also observes “The practice of polyandry is generally supposed to be un-Vedic; and clear evidences are not found in the Vedic texts”. Yet, he feels such imagery of Aswins and the Maruts were evidently inspired by polyandric – traits that must have existed in the past.

Madhavi’s story has therefore to be placed in the context of pre-Vedic times.

17.1. The instances that Yudhishtira mentions, those of Jatila and Varksi are indeed very ancient; and not much is known about these women. They are very rare incidents. In Aitareya Brahmana , a post Vedic text, attached to Rig Veda , there is a distinct prohibition against a wife having more than one husband at a time (AB: 2.23) .

By the time of Mahabharata, the polyandry as a cultural trait had fallen into disuse and was largely discredited. It was also not in vogue at the time of the Buddha (600 BCE).

The Dharma-shastras too do not speak of polyandry. Thus, even in the earliest times of which we have evidence, polyandry had become rare and discredited. It was not considered ‘respectable’ in the Madyadesha, the heartland of Vedic and Buddhist religions.

17.2. According to Dr. Sarkar, the practice of polyandry lingered among the Tribal communities in the Western Sub-Himalaya belts and among as also among the Tibet-Burma tribes. 

As regards Tibet, according to Melvyn C. Goldstein, professor of anthropology at Case Western University, in Natural History (vol. 96, no. 3, March 1987, pp. 39-48) , the practice is tied with limited tillable land, inadequate labor force and the skewed ratio of male -female. The custom  of polyandry occurs in many different economic classes, but is especially common in peasant landowning families.

But, it has been on steady decline; though it is occasionally still practiced.

Question of Women

18.1. In the stories through which the Mahabharata speaks of life, women occupy a central position. It is the women who take decisions, direct the course of events and decide the fate of men and their generations to follow. The women are the true leaders of the Epic. The three women (Satyavathi, Kunti and Draupadi) in particular wielded power, in more ways than one. Mahabharata is interwoven with their remarkable sagacity in exercise of power and leadership. They knew when and how to wield power; and more importantly, when not to slam it. These women demonstrated that the truly powerful do not have to cling to the seat of power, but can still influence the course of events.

[When you come to think of it ; the tragedy of the Kauravas was that their helpless mother Gandhari was unable to exert her influence upon her wayward children.]

18.2. One of the other ways of looking at Mahabharata is to view it as a reflection of the flow of woman’s life. The narrations in the early part of the Epic indicate that the women enjoyed a greater degree of freedom, were invested with authority to take decisions on crucial matters, and were accorded much respect. We have seen how Madhavi could preserve her independence; and exercise a measure of freedom of thought and action in a manner that was unique to her times.

Later, coming down to the core Epic, you find Ganga and Satyavati married on conditions they imposed and insisted upon. Satyavati the fisher-maid could upset the dynamics of the royalty. She prevailed upon her husband to ensure that only her progenies succeeded to the throne. Kunti and Madri could take their decisions independently on crucial matters. Kunti, in particular, exercised control and actively directed the lives of her sons. She could command a sort of respect and obedience that Gandhari the queen could not secure from sons.

18.3.   As the Epic steps into its middle and later stages when Kunti recedes to background and Draupadi   enters the lives of the Pandavas there is a noticeable erosion in the power and influence of women. The women in the Epic are no longer respected as they once were. The esteem of women plummeted to its nadir with the most brazen act of wagering Draupadi at a gambling game of dice, which led to   insult and humiliation of her womanhood in a public place. Thereafter, the women cease to play any significant role; they are treated rather coarsely and almost reduced to objects of pity.

Draupadi as a woman and mother is dealt a most grievous and mortal blow when her sons are slaughtered while asleep alongside her.   At the end, Draupadi the prime heroine of the Epic is left to die unattended as she stumbles and falls on mountain slopes while none of her five husbands cares to stay with her or to help her.

19.1. Thus, Mahabharata depicts a steady degradation of woman’s status, erosion of her authority, and degeneration of her esteem. That worsening downward trend, sadly, continued for long centuries. Let’s talk of this in bit more detail.

19.2. When Pandu attempted to force his wife Kunti to beget children for him by soliciting a worthy stranger, she recoiled in horror and flatly refused, screaming “not even in touch will I be embraced by another”. Pandu eventually succeeded in gaining her acceptance by cajoling and reasoning with her after narrating to her the sanctioned customs of the Uttara-kuru, Northern Kurus:

“Now will I make known to thee the true essence of dharma, listen unto me the ancient dharma perceived by the lofty-minded knowers of it (atha tv imaṃ pravakṣyāmi dharmaṃ tv etaṃ nibodha me – Adi Parva – 01,113.003). In former times, as is well known, women were left unhindered (anavrita)- anāvṛtāḥ kila purā striya āsan varānane; O thou of the lovely face, going the way of their desires, in freedom they followed their own inclinations.  (kāma cāra vihāriṇyaḥ svatantrāś cārulocane),

O sweet-smiling one, neither man nor woman knew jealousy (Irshya nasti nari- nara- naam); and, were free from fear, excessive attachment and anger.   When they, from the years of maidenhood on, did trick their husbands; that was not seen as wrong. But, that was the right thing in former times. 

This was the moral order laid down by the rule of conduct; it was honoured by the great Rishis through observance, and to-day is still honored among the Uttara-kurus –

purāṇadṛṣṭo dharmo ‘yaṃ pūjyate ca maharṣibhiḥ uttareṣu ca rambhoru kuruṣv adyāpi vartate / strīṇām anugraha-karaḥ sa hi dharmaḥ sanātanaḥ – Adi parva – 01,113.006.

For, this is the eternal law that shows favour to women. But, sadly, the barrier of to-day was set up in our world short while ago.  Learn this now, O brightly-smiling one, from me “.

He then narrates the bizarre story of Svethakethu son of the Rishi Uddalaka; and, the circumstance that prompted Svethakethu to bring into effect the new moral order of conduct for woman and man, replacing the ancient law under which the women were unhindered (anavrita)   .

“Until then, women were not restricted to the house, they were not dependent on family members; they moved about freely, they enjoyed themselves freely. Until then they  were free; they could sleep with any men they liked from the age of puberty; they could be  unfaithful to their husbands, and yet were not viewed  sinful… the greatest rishis have praised the ancient  tradition-based custom;… the Northern Kurus still practice it…the new custom is very recent.” (Mbh: Adi Parva; 113.4-8)

19.3. During the Vedic ages, the women were generally not discriminated against merely on the grounds of gender. They did have their say in matters of education; marriage; re-marriage; managing the household and the property. Many women engaged in intellectual pursuits, participation in public debate; and many were teachers. There were also few instances of women on the battlefield fighting along with their men folk.

I am not suggesting that the Vedic society was a perfect one. I wonder if there ever was a perfect society. Even Plato’s idealized Utopia was not perfect. Rig Vedic society too suffered from poverty, destitution, slavery and exploitation of the weak. But, the sorrows and suffering that the women of those times had to endure in their day- to-day living were not for the mere reason they were women. The depravity, social evil and injustice do exist in all societies – modern or otherwise- just as the strong, affluent, educated, enlightened, independent and liberated women do exist in all societies. The Vedic society was as good or bad as any other society of its time; but it appeared to be a tolerant and moderately unbiased society.

20.1. What happened after the Buddhist period, particularly after 300 BCE, was a totally different story. Woman lost the high status and some of her independence she once enjoyed in society. She became a piece of property, an object to be protected.

The period after 300 B.C witnessed a succession of invasions and influx of foreigners such as the Greeks, the Scythians, the Parthian, the Kushans and others. The political misfortunes, the war atrocities followed by long spells of anarchy and lawlessness had a disastrous effect on the Indian society. Fear and insecurity haunted common people and the householders. Sons were valued higher than the daughters because of the need for more fighting males in order to survive waves of onslaughts. It was also imperative to protect women from abductors. It therefore became necessary to curtail women’s freedom and movements’; and confining them within limited spaces. Early marriage was employed as a part of those defensive measures. The education of the girl child was no longer a priority, as was her safety.

20.2. The   Dharmashastras came into prominence at the time when the orthodox society was under dire threat and when it was fighting for survival. The society had entered into an inward looking self preservation – mode. The severity of the Dharmashastras was perhaps a defensive mechanism, in response to the threats and challenges thrown at its pet social order. The Shastras compromised social values by accepting early marriage as a substitute for Upanayanam and education of girls. The neglect of education, imposing seclusion and paranoid sense of insecurity that gripped their lives had disastrous consequences upon the esteem and status of women. The society in turn sank into depravity.

The social conditions deteriorated rapidly during the medieval period.

21.1. The long centuries stretching to almost 2000 years – from 300 B.C. to 1800 A.D. – are truly the dark ages of India. The development of woman steadily stuttered though she was affectionately nurtured by the parents, loved by the husband and cared by her children.

21.2. Now, it is the time of reawakening. Women of India are beginning to get opportunities to establish their identity and be recognized for their potential, talent and capabilities. This is a good re-beginning; though there is still a long way to go. The process must improve both in terms of its spread and quality. The ancient principles of equal opportunities for learning and development; equitable position in work-place; and the right to seek out her destiny with honor, must soon find place in all segments of the society. It might sound like asking for the moon. But, that is the only option India is left with, if it has to survive as a nation…and, if only the opportunities and freedom are utilized sensibly.


[You may click here for its complete and enlarged version for tracing the line of kings from Manu to Ikshvaku to   Mahabharata ]


References and Sources

1.Some aspects of the earliest social history of India –pre Buddihistic ages (1924)   by Dr. Subimal Chandra Sarkar.

2. Sexual Life in Ancient India (Barnes & Noble, inc 1953) by Johann Jacob Meyer.

3. Polyandry in Ancient India (1988) by Dr. Sarva Daman Singh

4. A Social History of India (2009) by Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya

5.The story of Yayati’s daughter Madhavi in the Udyoga Parvam

The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, Volume 3 Books 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12

6. Apropos Epic Women: East & West 




Posted by on October 10, 2012 in Madhavi, Mahabharata


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Re: Your research on Karna

I would greatly appreciate it, if could help me in understanding some aspects of Karna’s life.

I have, during my research, not really been able to find out the antecedents of Adhiratha, Vasusena’s adoptive father. And as you are well aware, a lot of the issues confronting the adolescent, and later, the adult Karna hinge on him being addressed as Sootaputra. I thought you could shed some light on this. Technically, Adhiratha’s mother should be a Brahmin/Rishi’s daughter, while his father would be a Kshatriya warrior King/ Prince, if he is a Soota.

Also, is it possible that Adhiratha, and Vidura (Also called Daasi-Suta {not Soota}) could have had some connection? Wasn’t Vidura’s wife Aruni (also a Soota, the daughter of King Devaka by a Shudra handmaid) also called Radha, as was Adhiratha’s wife (From whom Karna got the Metronymic Radheya)? Although, strictly going by definitions, Vidura is not really a Soota at all- he was born of a Shudra maid and Rishi Vyasa…

I would love to hear more from you on this… Blessings, Deepam


A nameless, aimless waif on earth.
Relentless Fate swoop’d thee to serve Her aim.
And veer’d thy steps into a nest of plots
And feuds: A Royal house of power-drunk sots,
Perdue to Pity, Chivalry, e’en shame!

Beguil’d with bribe of crown to battle in cause
Of king, who match’d thee ‘gainst thy very kin,
Thy valor, bounty, innocence of sin
Avail’d thee naught ‘gainst unjust death. Alas!
Befooled babe ‘gainst Fate’s bewildering odds!
Bejeweled bauble of the jeering Gods!

—T.P. Kailasam


1.1. Dear Shri Deepamjee, You are welcome. Thank you for asking the questions. I find the subject of your research quite interesting; and more interesting is your background. You say that after being an Officer in  the Army  and quitting it about a dozen years ago you have taken up research; and have authored a book on ‘The Timeless Faith: Dialogues on Hinduism’.

1.2. You mentioned that you registered on Sulekha only in order to talk to me. That’s ok. May I suggest you stay here and look around; you will find a number of wonderfully gifted persons who write with great skill and enterprise on diverse subjects . Your interactions could be mutually beneficial.

1.3. You have raised a number of issues and my response might be lengthy. I therefore prefer to post it as blog, rather than as a comment or send it to you  by E-mail .I reckon that if posted on the net it might also help those looking for similar answers.

1.4. I suggest you read my earlier posts on Draupadi, Kunti and Satyavathi, the three most remarkable women of Mahabharata who wielded enormous influence and power with skill and sagacity over the lives of those around them; and more importantly they knew precisely when not to exhibit their power. You might also read my post on the concept of Dharma as it was employed and demonstrated in Mahabharata. This article briefly discusses some of the issues related to your research; it might be of use, modestly.

The Question of Caste

2.1. Since your questions touch upon caste and other social issues, it is important to understand the matrix of the then prevailing system.

The question of caste and the systems of its classifications and sub- classifications played a crucial role in the story of Mahabharata; and particularly in the lives of those  disadvantaged ones. The caste spread its tentacles deep into every aspect of the Mahabharata society; and had a vise- like stranglehold over matters concerning ones position and rights in the society, as also the matters related to property –rights, inheritance etc.

2.2. The Mahabharata society functioned, I reckon, not as a collection of free individuals enjoying equal rights; or as a cohesive society bound together by a set of equitable –common civil laws. Its society was viewed as a community made up of distinct caste groups. Its specific position in social hierarchy, its economic and social functions, rights and responsibilities of each group were well recognized and articulated.

The Bhagavad-Gita tried to mollify a bad situation that was getting worse by clarifying that the four-way classification was indeed based on ones merit or excellence (guna) and functions (karma).But that sadly remained an academic placation.

2.3. A person in the Mahabharata society derived his position and rights by virtue of being a   member of a given caste-group rather than as an individual on the strength of  his merits. The questions of his status, his inheritance as also those of his offspring were decided in the context of his sub caste-group. The matter would usually be fairly simple and well laid out when both the husband and wife belonged to the same caste-group. But, it would get rather complicated when man and woman came from different caste-groups.

The then Law-givers went into great lengths to classify and sub-classify the offspring of such inter-caste marriages, in order to determine their status and rights. There were, of course, supplementary questions that begged for answers. Such uncomfortable questions  arose in the context of those born out of the wedlock or of those born to a re-married woman and such other complications.

Towards the end of the epic, in the Shanthi-parva, Yudhistira the newly anointed king queries, among other things, the wise old Bhishma strung on a bed of arrows: “We hear of many disputes that arise out of the question of the sons. Do thou solve the doubt for us, who are bewildered “. Bhishma then initially lists out nine types or categories of sons who then are classified as those: (i) sons who belong to the family and have also the right to inherit; (ii) and as those sons who only belong to the family, but have not the right to inherit. Bhishma then goes on to list twelve other types of sons who are born out of man and woman who belong to different castes.

Of these the first six are termed apadh-vamsaja (three types born of a Brahman with Kshatriya, Vaishya or Sudra woman; two types born of a Kshatriya with Vaishya or Sudra woman; and one type born of a Vaishya with a Sudra woman); and six other types termed apasada (three types born of Sudra with Brahman, Kshatriya or Vaishya woman; two types born of a Vaishya with Brahman or Kshatriya woman; and, one type born of a Kshatriya with Brahman woman). Apart from these there are also other categories born outside –wedlock with or the without the express approval of the husband; sons of re-married woman; sons born to widows, sons born to virgins; as also those sons adopted, sons gifted, adopted from other parents; those abandoned infants picked up from the street and whose parentage is not known; and, sons bought for price etc. The rights of inheritance or otherwise, the caste and the social status of each category are also listed.

2.4. The later text the Arthasastra (dated around the third century BCE) fairly well enumerated the classifications based on the distinction whether the male was of a superior caste (anuloma) or whether the female was of a superior caste (pratiloma). Those were again sub-classified depending on how far a spouse ranked below the other.

For instance, the son begotten by a Brahman from a Kshatriya woman was a murddhabhishikta (an anantaráputráha or savarna marriage); a son begotten by a Brahman from a Vaishya woman was ambastha; and a son begotten by a Brahman  from a Sudra woman was a Nisháda or Párasava. Similar classifications were provided for Kshatriyas and Vaishyas who married below their caste-rank .The rights of those offsprings diminished progressively.

[Chapter VII : “Distinction between Sons” in the section of “Division of Inheritance” in Book III, “Concerning law” of the Arthasástra of Kautilya.]

KAZ03.7.20/ brāhmaṇa.kṣatriyayor anantarā.putrāḥ savarṇāḥ, eka.antarā asavarṇāḥ //
KAZ03.7.21/ brāhmaṇasya vaiśyāyām ambaṣṭhaḥ, śūdrāyāṃ niṣādaḥ pāraśavo vā //
KAZ03.7.22/ kṣatriyasya śūdrāyām ugraḥ //
KAZ03.7.23/ śūdra eva vaiśyasya //
KAZ03.7.24/ savarṇāsu ca^eṣām acarita.vratebhyo jātā vrātyāḥ //
KAZ03.7.25/ ity anulomāḥ //
KAZ03.7.26/ śūdrād āyogava.kṣatta.caṇḍālāḥ //
KAZ03.7.27/ vaiśyān māgadha.vaidehakau //
KAZ03.7.28/ kṣatriyāt sūtaḥ //

2.5. Under a similar classification, the offspring begotten by a Brahman woman from a Kshatriya male was called Suta; her offspring from a Vaishya male was Videha; and her offspring from a Sudra was a Sudra. Similar sub-classifications were provided for Kashatriya and Vaishya women marring below their caste-rank. The Artha-sastra said, the sons begotten by a Súdra on women of higher castes were Ayogava, Kshatta, and Chandála. The term Kshatta, however, had earlier had a totally different connotation in the Mahabharata times, as we shall see in the next paragraph.

2.6. The sub-classifications briefly outlined above might look rather pedantic and obtuse. But, they had the bite to inject pain and humiliation into the lives of many virtuous but underprivileged persons in the Mahabharata tale.

The caste issue was a tragedy that not merely marred the lives of some its characters but it also turned into a bane and curse on the countless generations that followed.

[On the question of caste determining ones position in the Mahabharata society, there is an alternate view. It points out that Krishna , a Yadava was revered as a  divine person; Satyavathi , a fisher-woman, could become a Queen;  Vyasa , a half-breed, was the most respected Sage; and , Karna the son of a Suta , was appointed a King. Thus , it was not merely the caste;  but it was  ones merit that truly mattered.]


The Sutas

3.1. The offspring born of a Brahman woman from her Kshatriya husband was labeled a Suta. You come across a number of Sutas in the Mahabharata story; and most of them played crucial but thankless roles; and endured humiliation and pain.

The terms Suta and Suti or Sauti (son of suta) appear to have gained currency at a later time. For instance Yadu the ancestor of the Yadavas in which linage Krishna and Balarama descended was the son of the legendry  King Yayathi (Kshatriya) and Devayani (daughter of the Brahman Guru Shukracharya) . Yadu was technically a Suta –  as per the norms that later came into use ; but, Yadu was never addressed as a Suta , nor his descendents were termed Sauti.

3.2. The Sutas of Mahabharata traditionally served the kings and functioned as their charioteers (Rathakára); and as those who reported events, narrated stories, read out massages and took out messages from the king. They were also the repositories of the lore and genealogies of the Royal dynasties. The Sutas in general, were confidants of the king, at times his advisers; and moved closely with the king while he was in his living quarters (anthahpura).

But Sutas were never treated as friends of the king; nor were they provided living quarters in the palace per se .There are hardly any instances of Sutas  being offered Brahman or Kshatriya brides, in marriage. The Sutas married among themselves; and followed the customs and avocations their ancestors.

3.3. To mention some of the Sutas, Sanjaya (the son of Gavalgana who also was in the service of the kings of Hasthinapur) the charioteer who was temporarily bestowed  long-distance-vision of the happenings on the battle fields of Kurukshetra;  and who narrated the war events to his blind king Dhritarashtra was a Suta.

Ugrashrava (meaning one blessed with high or loud voice) was often addressed as Sauti(the son of a Suta). He was the son of a Suta Lomaharsha or Lomaharshana or Romaharshana(because of his delightful and thrilling manner of narration). Lomaharshana Suta is the one who narrated the Srimad Bhagavata purana to the sage Saunaka and other at Naimsaranya – a forest named after the king of the yore Nimi.  His son Ugrashrava   recited in verse the entire epic story of Mahabharata, also to the sages in Naimsaranya.Ugrashrava  was revered as one well versed in all puranas.

While Ramayana is sublime poetry, Mahabharata is the vigor of the spoken language studded with extensive use of similes, metaphors and symbolic allegories. It portrays the living language of the times with blessings, curses, oaths, sane advise, humour,  ranting , heart wrenching shrieks , sagely preaching etc  conveying every shade of human emotions.

The beauty of its language is in its oral rendering. Even today, groups of devote listeners love to gather around a narrator to listen in divine fervor to the ancient tales the glory of their heroes and heroines, rather than read the epic.

[Incidentally, another explanation for Naimsaranya is the time-less zone of peace: nimisha = unit of time; naimisha = timeless; aranya = a zone free from conflicts (ranya) or a zone of peace]

3.4. Kichaka, the half-brother of Sudeshna the queen of the Matsya king Virata, was also a Suta. In the entire sordid story of Mahabharata, Kichaka perhaps was the only Suta who had his way and who enjoyed his style of life. But, he lost his head, overreached himself and eventually met a rather an ignoble end.

Karna was a Suta-putra, the son of a Suta, which meant he was inferior to  a Suta.

.…And the others

4.1. There were others of a similar class; such as Vaitalikas who called out aloud the hour of the day or night, and also keep track of genealogy (vamsavali-kirtaka); and, the Vandi –Magadhas who recite the glory  , the titles and aceivements of the kings ; herald their arrival into the Royal Court and recite blessings.  Most of them, just as the Sutas, were men of virtue, wisdom and valor; and they served their masters with devotion. They were, however, denied the recognition they deserved, mainly because of their birth antecedents. The ponderous Mahabharata hides in its bosom countless stories of unspoken pain, sorrow and humiliation. That is one of the tragedies of its sordid tale.

4.2. For instance; the blind king Dhritarashtra fathered a son named Yuyutsu, from his servant maid, a Vaishya woman. Yuyutsu was thus technically a mahishya (the son of a Kshatriya father and a vaishya mother); and, he was acknowledged as such in public. He was younger to Duryodhana and elder to Dushyasana; but was snubbed and neglected because he was a mahishyaand not a full-blooded prince. Yuyutsu was the only one, in the crowded court-hall, that had the courage and sanity to disapprove Duryodhana’s heinous behavior and the humiliation meted out to Draupadi, the kula-vadha. And later when the war looked imminent, he pleaded in vain withDuryodhana to make peace with the Pandavas; and to avoid needless bloodshed.  When the war did eventually happen, Yuyutsu chose to fight along with the Pandavas against his step brothers. Yuyutsu was the only Kaurava that survived the internecine bloodbath. Yet, Yuyutsu the  mahishya  could not succeed to the Kaurava throne ; while Arjuna’s grandson Parikshit was made the king of Hasthinapur;  and Krishna’s grandson Vajra was made the king of the other remaining half of the kingdom , Indraprastha . Yuyutsu was made only a prime minister of Indraprastha on the eve of Pandava’s departure from the earthly world.

4.3. You mentioned Vidura. He was not a Suta. He was repeatedly addressed by all as Kshatta; perhaps meaning a kshetraja a son born to a woman from a man (other than the husband) appointed to impregnate her. Vidura’s mother was a servant maid to the queen while his father was Vyasa, a sage. The term Kshatta, centuries later, acquired a totally different meaning in the Artha Sastra, where Kshatta meant a son begotten by a Súdra male from a women of higher caste.

Among the three de-jure sons of Vichitravirya, only Vidura was wise, and sound both in body and mind. He could not however be treated as equal to Pandu and Dhritarashtra born of Kshatriya mothers. Bhishma, the grand-old-man, brought brides from Kshatriya families for Pandu and Dhritarashtra. But for Vidura he got the daughter of king Devaka ‘begotten upon a Sudra wife’. Her name was Parshavya. She was technically an ugra (begotten by a Kshatriya on a Súdra woman). It is said ‘Vidura begot upon her many children like unto himself in accomplishments’. His no other family details are easily available.

Dhritarashtra seemed to have affection towards Vidura, but he ordered him about, and often dismissed him rudely. Vidura was for all purposes a half-brother of the king but could claim neither  right nor respect.

Vidura was a person of great wisdom, he often advised the King even on matters relating to the State. But none of the Kauravas, including the blind king, cared to listen to him or follow his counsel. His role was unenviable and frustrating.  He knew the right way; but had to watch a helpless onlooker  when  everything was going  wrong hurling down  towards death and destruction.

When all his attempts to avoid the war ended in failure, Vidura withdrew from all state affairs, stayed aloof and did not participate in the war . After the end of the ruinous war Vidura out of loyalty and love for his step brother retreated into the forests along with Dhritarashtra, Gandhari and Kunti; and eventually gave up his coils in forest fire.

4.5. Karna was a suta-putra, the son of a Suta, which meant he was below the rank of Suta. Because, Suta was born to a Kashatriya and a Brahman; and the Suta-putra was the offspring of Suta parents. Karna, all his life endured taunts, insults and humiliation for being a Suta-putra. That hurt him grievously.

But it was the rejection and insult thrown in his face by Draupadi, at her swayamvara that hurt him most. Draupadi, yajnaseni the flashing one born out of fire, insisted on being declared a Veeryashulka, a bride to be won by the worthiest and the very best; and she vehemently protested against the lowborn Suta-putra entering the contest.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.  He shamefacedly participated in the outrage mounted on her modesty. That sowed the seeds of destruction of the Kaurava clan.

Duryodhana treated Karna as a bosom friend. He provided him an identity, recognition and esteem by making him the King of Anga. But, he would not offer him a Kshatriya princess in marriage. Karna was a good friend but he fell short of being a Kinsman.

As the war began, Bhishma the commander-in-chief of the kaurava armies ranked Karna as an Ardha-rathi which was inferior to the ranks of Maha-rathi, Ati-rathi and Rathi.

[A warrior capable of fighting 60,000 warriors simultaneously; having mastery over all forms of weapons and combat skills was termed Maharathi. while a warrior capable of contending with 10,000 warriors simultaneously was an Atirathi].

Though Karna by then was universally recognized as a Maha-rathin, Bhishma degraded him to half of a capable warrior, perhaps just to spite the Sutaja. Karna understandably was deeply hurt and insulted; and he withdrew from the battle till Bhishma fell

Towards the end of the war, Shalya the king of Madra (the maternal uncle of Nakula and Sahadeva) a skilled horseman was tricked by Duryodhana into being Karna’s charioteer. Shalya suppressed his anger at being cheated to act as a charioteer to a Suta-putra; but did upset Karna and dampen his fighting spirit, in order to ensure Karna’s defeat.

The Karna – Shalya rancorous repartee is not in high flowing language and in rather bad taste; it also refers to slang and abusive oaths and cusses of the women of Madra region (Punjab – Sialkot area)-malaṃ pṛthivyā bāhlīkāḥ strīṇāṃ madrastriyo malam – 08,030.068

All those heaps of insults, treachery and conspiracy of fate  did eventually burnt a deep hole in his heart; and he lost the will to live.


5.1. Adhiratha, the foster father of karna, was a Suta. His father was a Kshatriya king and his mother a Brahman. Adhiratha was born of Satyakarma (satkarma) the king of Anga (a region around the present-day Bhagalpur in Bihar) from his Brahman wife.

Who was this Satyakarman or Satyakarma or Satkarma?

5.2. Satyakarma of Chandravamsha (Lunar dynasty) was the son of Dhrtavrata; who was the son of Druthi who in turn was the son of Vijaya. And, Vijaya was the son of Bruhanmana from his second wife Satya. Bruhanmana was the son of Jayadratha by his wife Sambhuti.

The Ninth Canto, Twenty-third Chapter, of the Srimad-Bhagavata, entitled “The Dynasties of the Sons of Yayati” provides a very long list of names tracing Satkarma to Yayathi.

5.2. “The Encyclopedic Dictionary of Puranas” by Parmeshwaranand Swami, in a relatively brief form traces the genealogy of Sathyakarman to the ancient King Yayathi:

Yayathi – Anudruhya –Sabhanara – Kalanara – Srnjaya – Titiksha – Kasadhrta – Homa – Sutapas.

From Sutapas and his wife Sateshna was born Bali who had seven sons: Anga, Kalinga, Sushma, Kandra, Vanga, Adrupa and Anasbhu.

Anga was the progenitor of a linage. To Anga were born several sons including the following: Dadhivrata, Raviratha, Dharmaratha, Chitraratha, Sathyaratha, Lomapada, Chaturanga, Pruthu, Haryanga and Bhadraratha.

Bhadraratha had following sons:    Jayadratha, Bhadramanas, Vijaya, Dhruthi, Dhartavrata and Satyakarman.

Satyakarman was the father of Adhiratha who was the foster father of Karna; and Karna was the father of Vrasasena.

5.3. It appears that Satyakarma had sons by his Kshatriya wife; and they succeeded him as kings of Anga. His other son Adhiratha begotten from his Brahman wife was a Suta who, as per the tradition, became a charioteer. It is likely that Adhiratha was at one time in the employ of king Dhritharastra of Hasthinapur, as his charioteer.

5.4. Adhiratha (at times called Surasena) was married to Radha, another Suta offspring. At the time Adhiratha and Radha found the baby- Karna in a box set adrift on the Ganga, they had no children, yet. But, after he and Radha adopted Karna as their son, they were blessed with four sons: Shatruntapa, Dhruma, Vrtharatha and Vipata.

In the later years, Shatruntapa died at the hands of Arjuna during the Uttrara-go-grahana misadventure on the outskirts of the Viratanagara the capital of Matsya Desha. The other three died in the Kurukshetra war during the days when Acharya Drona was commanding the Kaurava forces. Dhruma and Vrtharatha were killed by Bhima; and Vipata was killed by Arjuna.

[I did not come across a connection between Vidura and his wife with Adhiratha and his wife Radha.

Vidura’s wife was Parasavya; and Adhiratha’s wife as you said was Radha.

Adhiratha was a Suta while Vidura was a kshatta born of Sudra woman from Vyasa. Vidura was also said to be a kshetraja one born of a male appointed to impregnate the female.

The name Adhiratha is not to be mistaken for the term Ati-rathin a classification of warriors based on their supposed capabilities and valour. ]


6. Biographic details of Karna

6.1. The biographic details of karna are interspersed in bits and pieces at four different places in the Mahabharata : in Adi-Parva – SECTION CXI (Sambhava Parva);  in Vana Parva from SECTION CCCI to SECTION CCCVIII ;in Udyoga Parva SECTION CXLI ; and , in :SANTI PARVA – SECTION I  through to SECTION VI.[The references relate to sections in  Shri Kesari Mohan Ganguli’s monumental translation The Mahabharata of Krishna-dwaipayana Vyasa]

6.2. The first reference briefly mentions the birth antecedents and infancy of Karna. The second one in Vana Parva which follows Karna’s dream-conversation with Surya, his parent, warning against hoax requests exploiting his generosity is fairly detailed .It covers the early story of Kunti (Prutha) too: about her maidenhood in the household of Kuntibhoja her foster parent; serving the irascible sage Durvasa; helpless encounter with the Sun god; begetting out-of-wedlock a most wonderful looking adorable bright son, and out of sheer shame and fear of sullying the fair-name of her family, tearfully abandoning her firstborn setting him adrift the Aswa River. The narration continues along with the casket carrying the new born floating along the Aswa River then on to the Charmanvati (Chambal), the Yamuna and finally joining the River Ganga where Adhiratha and his wife Radha find the baby, joyously bring the little boy home, name him as Vasusena and bring him up most lovingly.  Kunti, all the time, through her spies keeps track of her son growing up in the Sutha family. In this section, it is said,   Adhiratha the foster father later sends Karna to Hastnapur for education under the famous teacher Drona. The story in this section concludes with Karna gifting away his invincible Kavacha (shield) and Kundala (earrings) to Indra in disguise, despite Surya‘s warning and sane counsel…

the election of Karn by Mukesh singh

the election of Karn by Mukesh singh

6.3. The third narration which occurs in Udyoga Parva is a brief one , wherein Karna in conversation with Krishna , who tried to entice him,   reminiscences his early childhood lovingly enveloped in the care and affection of the Suta family and particularly of his mother Radha. He fondly recalls his early upbringing and education provided by his foster family: “When also I attained to youth, I married wives according to his selections. Through them have been born my sons and grandsons, O Janardana. My heart also, O Krishna, and all the bonds of affection and love, are fixed on them. From joy or fear. O Govinda. I cannot venture to destroy those bonds even for the sake of the whole earth or heaps of gold. “

It was a very mature, restrained and almost a sagely reply. He speaks with a great sense of responsibility and commitment to his values in life, hiding    his deep sense of sorrow and betrayal behind calm courage that almost borders on suicidal detachment.

6.4. The fourth narration in Shanthi Parva occurs after the death of Karna. This occurs at the commencement of Shanthi Parva soon after the conclusion of the internecine bloodbath at the Kurukshetra war.   Yudhistira   on learning from Kunti, Karna’s identity is distraught and heartbroken. He laments over the cruelty and irony of fate that conspired forcing him to kill his elder brother Karna for the sake of reclaiming the lost kingdom. “I desire to hear everything from thee, O holy one!’ he cried out in anguish. At the request of Yudhistira, Sage Narada recounts the tale of Karna from his birth, childhood, education and his deeds and misdeeds in company of his friend and benefactor Duryodhana.  This narration covers a little more ground than the earlier two; and also speaks of Karna’s adult life in service of Duryodhana. Narada explains the wrongs that Karna committed were prompted by his sense of abandonment, loneliness, bitterness and envy of the Pandavas particularly of his rival and challenger Arjuna.

It is this section which mentions that Karna in his early tutelage with Drona approaches the teacher (Drona), in private, requesting to be taught the secret of “the Brahma weapon, with all its mantras and the power of withdrawing it”, for he desired to fight Arjuna. Drona of course promptly refuses saying ‘None but a Brahmana, who has duly observed all vows, should be acquainted with the Brahma weapon, or a Kshatriya that has practiced austere penances, and no other.’ Thereafter Karna promptly takes leave of Drona and proceeded without delay to Parasurama then residing on the Mahendra mountains introducing himself as ‘I am a Brahmana of Bhrigu’s race.’ Karna thereafter spent perhaps the happiest days of his life acquiring all the knowledge, skills and all the weapons; becoming a great favorite of his teacher, the gods, the Gandharvas, and the Rakshasas. That happiness was short-lived. Soon two tragedies and two curses struck him. Please check for details the links provided above.

[The Karna – Parasurama episode could obviously have occurred between the period of Karna’s early education with Drona (at the instance of Adhiratha the foster parent of Karna) and the game-show at Hastinapura at which the bright and belligerent Karna was anointed the King of the Anga province. Towards the end of the game-show Adiratha enters the arena and blesses his son Karna; and the whole world thereafter comes to recognize Karna as the son of Adhiratha the Suta.

Karna’s education with Parasurama was apparently before he was appointed the King of Anga-Desha and not later. Because, after that happening there was no way that Karna famed as the friend and confidant of the prince of Hastinapura could have gone to Parasurama in undercover calling himself as ‘I am a Brahmana of Bhrigu’s race.’]

Karna – your questions

7.1. The childless couple Adhiratha and Radha found the enchanting baby Karna in a box filled with gold-jewels, drifting on the waves of the Ganga. They were overwhelmed with joy and adopted the new found baby as their son.

Adhiratha took away the box from the water-side, and opened it by means of instruments. And then he beheld a boy resembling the morning Sun. And the infant was furnished with golden mail, and looked exceedingly beautiful with a face decked in ear-rings. And thereupon the charioteer, together with his wife, was struck with such astonishment that their eyes expanded in wonder. And taking the infant on his lap, Adhiratha said unto his wife, ‘Ever since I was born, O timid lady, I had never seen such a wonder. This child that hath come to us must be of celestial birth. Surely, sonless as I am, it is the gods that have sent him unto me!’

And after Karna’s adoption, Adhiratha had other sons begotten by himself. And seeing the child furnished with bright mail and golden ear-rings, the twice-born ones named him Vasusena. And thus did that child endued with great splendour and immeasurable prowess became the son of the charioteer, and came to be known as Vasusena and Vrisha. ]

7.2. Karna recounts to Krishna (in Udyoga-parva) his early child hood. He speaks with great warmth about his foster parents; fondly recalling the love they showered on him narrates how they doted on him,  how they brought him up in the Suta tradition and how they got him married to a Suta bride.

As soon as he beheld me, took me to his home, and from her affection for me, Radha’s breasts were filled with milk that very day, and she cleansed my urine and evacuations.

So also Adhiratha of the Suta class regardeth me as a son, and I too, from affection, always regard him as (my) father.

Adhiratha from paternal affection caused all the rites of infancy to be performed on my person, according to the rules prescribed in the scriptures. It is that Adhiratha, again, who caused the name Vasusena to be bestowed upon me by the Brahmanas.

When I attained to youth, I married wives according to his selections.

All my family rites and marriage rites have been performed with the Sutas.

[ ]

Karna retained loyalty and loving relationship with his foster parents till his death.

7.3. He was initially named Vasusena as he was found with ornaments of gold. He was Karna because he was adorned with most precious and glowing ear-ornaments. His other names were: Radheya (the son of Radha, his foster mother); Vrisha; Vrikartana (the Sun); Bhanuja (Sun’s son); Goputra; Vaikarttana (because he gave away the kavacha and earrings he was born with); Angaraja (the king of Anga); Champadhipa (king of Champa, a region along the banks of the Ganga). And of course he was also called Sutaputra,; Sutaja; Kanina( one born to a Kanya an unmarried girl); and Bhishma deliberately insulted Karna by labeling him an Ardha-rathi , one who has  only half the fighting  capacity of a valiant warrior. That was the unkindest cut of all.

7.4. Karna’s wife is named as Vrushali, a Suta (The names such as Prabhavathi and Supriya are also mentioned as the other wives of Karna, But, Kesari Mohan Ganguli’s monumental translation “The Mahabharata of Krishna-dwaipayana Vyasa” does not seem to mention those names).It is very likely that Karna had more than one wife. Karna mentioned to Krishna: “When I attained to youth, I married wives according to his (Adhiratha) selections”.

7.5. As regards his sons, Karna had several sons and the names of nine of his sons are mentioned. Of the nine, only one survived the Kurukshetra war.

Vrasasena; Sudhama; Shatrunjaya; Dvipata; Sushena; Satyasea; Chitrasena; Susharma(Banasena); and Vrishakethu .

Sudhama died in the melee that followed Draupadi’s swayamvara. Shatrunjaya and Dvipata died in the Kurukshetra war at the hands of Arjuna during the days when Drona commanded the Kaurava forces. Sushena was killed in the war by Bhima. Satyasena, Chitrasena and Susharma died in the hands of Nakula. Karna’s eldest son Vrasasena died during the last days of the war when Karna was the commanded the battle forces. Vrasasena was killed by Arjuna.

Vrushasena’s death is described in all its gruesome detail:

Arjuna rubbed the string of his bow and took aim at Vrishasena in that battle, and sped, O king, a number of shafts for the slaughter of Karna’s son. The diadem-decked Arjuna then, fearlessly and with great force, pierced Vrishasena with ten shafts in all his vital limbs. With four fierce razor-headed arrows he cut off Vrishasena’s bow and two arms and head. Struck with Partha’s shafts, the son of Karna, deprived of arms and head, fell down on the earth from his car, like a gigantic shala adorned with flowers falling down from a mountain summit. Beholding his son, thus struck with arrows, fall down from his vehicle, the Suta’s son Karna, endued with great activity and scorched with grief on account of the death of his son, quickly proceeded on his car, inspired with wrath, against the car of the diadem-decked Partha.

Some versions mention that a son of Karna died in the battle with Abhimanyu. But, his name is not given.

Vrishakethu was the only son of Karna that survived the horrific slaughter called Kurukshetra war. He later came under the patronage of the Pandavas. During the campaign that preceded the Ashvamedha –yaga, Vrishakethu accompanied Arjuna and participated in the battles with Sudhava and Babruvahana. During that campaign Vrishakethu married the daughter of king Yavanatha (perhaps a king of the western regions).  It is said, Arjuna developed great affection for Vrishakethu, his nephew.


wedding of vrushakethu


76. As regards Karna’s tragic end, so much has been written about those heart wrenching scenes; one can hardly say any more. To put it simply:

The seventeenth day of the war began fairly well for Karna. In the early part of the day, Karna defeated Bhima and Yudhisthira, but spared their lives. Later in the day Karna resumed his duel with Arjuna. During their duel, Karna’s chariot wheel got struck in the mud and Karna asked for a pause. Krishna reminded Arjuna about Karna’s ruthlessness unto Abhimanyu while he was similarly stranded without chariot and weapons. Hearing his son’s fate, the enraged Arjuna shot his arrow and decapitated Karna.

7.7. All his life, Karna carried in his heart the searing raw wound of unrecognized greatness. The many insults and humiliations he had to endure were because of his supposedly low birth. That led him to a quest for recognition and respect from his fellow beings as the mightiest Kshatriya of his times.  His feats of great heroism, his bitter rivalry with Arjuna were fueled mainly by that ambition. “I was born for valour; I was born to achieve glory” (43.6). Karna was the blazing but the sinking Sun among the dark clouds of the Kauravas.

Vyasa mourns Karna: “The arrow raved Karna-Sun, after scorching its enemies, was forced to set by valiant Arjuna –kala” (91.62)

Kunti  praises her first-born, her dead son as “A hero, ear-ringed, armored, and splendid like the Sun”; ”He was all dazzle like molten gold , like fire , like the Sun”; “ To whoever asked he gave, he never said no..Always the giver” (09,004.034)

a śūrāṇām āryavṛttānāṃ saṃgrāmeṣv anivartinām /  dhīmatāṃ satyasaṃdhānāṃ sarveṣāṃ kratuyājinām //09,004.034 //

7.8. The lives of the Sutas and of the similar other ones are filled with unspoken pain and neglect. When you come to think of it, you realize that none of the major characters – men and women even of royal blood – had a happy and peaceful life. Their lives too were filled with struggle, sorrow and frustration. Each one – virtuous or otherwise- was disillusioned, in the end.

7.9. Vyasa concludes the epic imploring all humans to adhere to Dharma and to practice Dharma. And, for some reason, the Great Vyasa in desperation pours out his frustration, screaming aloud:

“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 (righteousness). 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….”   

ūrdhvabāhur viraumy eṣa na ca kaś cic chṛṇoti me / dharmād arthaś ca kāmaś ca sa kimarthaṃ na sevyate /  na jātu kāmān na bhayān na lobhād; dharmaṃ tyajej jīvitasyāpi hetoḥ/  nityo dharmaḥ sukhaduḥkhe tv anitye; jīvo nityo hetur asya tv anityaḥ – MBh. 8,005.049-50

vyasa with raised hands


Trust this helps. .Please let me know. Regards

References and sources:

The Mahabharata of Krishna-dwaipayana Vyasa  by Shri Kesari Mohan Ganguli

Purana Bharata Kosha by shri Yagnanarayana Udupa

The Encyclopedic Dictionary of Puranas by   Parmeshwaranand Swami

The Mahabharata of Vyasa By Prof. P. Lal

 Pictures are from internet


Posted by on September 30, 2012 in Mahabharata


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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.

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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 (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.


Read Next:

Dharma in Dharma Shastras And  After.


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


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