The Gita Press Gorakhpur’s the Mahabharata has beautiful black and white sketches inserted in the text itself and it adds manifold to the charm of the epic. As a small girl, I would pour over these pictures and imagine the characters from the ancient past that held mysticism for my young mind. I would look at the pictures and read the text along with to get pleasure out of my reading. One particular picture that I still carry in my memory is of Hidimba, the Rakshsi. I used to watch the pictures intently as in one she would be looking ferocious and in another she would transform herself into a coy looking beautiful damsel. This transformation at will was what made me awestruck and somewhere deep inside me I carried a desire to have such power in my hands!
I always perceived, like multitudes of other Hindus, believing upon mythic stereotypes that Hidimba, a ferocious looking demoness, transformed herself into a bewitching beauty the moment her fancy was captured by the physical charms of Bhima, the powerful son of Kunti. In my imagination I would see her transform into a beauty the way Cinderella would be transformed into a beauty, and how would I envy her. In case of Cinderella, at least our sympathies lied with her as we wished for her to be happy and as such this transformation brought about a relief to us. But in case of Hidimba, it was a trickery to trap a gullible prey, not for eating it up but for getting carnal pleasure to relish his beauty.
So Hidimba seemed like a predator to me whereas Bhima was a prey. I sympathized with all Pandava brothers and their mother Kunti, an old hapless widow, who had to give away her son to the carnal whims and fancies of a rakshasi!
And then my visit to a temple dedicated to Hidimba made me wonder as why people would worship a Rakshsi? I was further in for strange revelations when I tried finding more about the temple and its deity.
Hidimba Devi temple stands in the midst of a sacred cedar forest near the town of Dunghri at the verdant foot of the Himalaya mountains. The sanctuary is built over an enormous rock that juts out of the ground, worshipped as a manifestation of Durga, the "Hill Mother" or goddess of the earth. The temple was constructed in 1553 by Maharaja Bahadur Singh, who made a promise to the Hidimba, deity of the Mahabharata epic.
The interior of the temple is occupied by the large rock and contains no useable space except for the ground floor. Curiously, a rope dangles from the ridge that is said to have been used to hang victims by the hand, who were then swung –bleeding and bruised – over the large rock in the presence of the goddess. However, the goddess herself is represented only once in a three inch tall brass image. Though I was wonderstruck but this didn’t change much the earlier image that I carried about Hidimba though honestly speaking a fissure had developed in my mind about what I perceived to be true.
I would have carried the same image and also transpired the same to my children as well had it not been reading rewritings of the Mahabharata along with a close reading of the text as well. What an average reader finds objectionable in the demeanor of Hidimba is her frank invitation to a male to have a relationship with her as such a desire coming from a female is something against the Indian sensitivity. Females have always been conditioned in the society to downplay their desires especially the ones dealing with sexuality.
A close reading of the epic made me aware of the hard fact that what a woman can do to another woman. Hidimba fell in love with Bhima and like a frank and innocent Hill woman had the honesty to acknowledge her love in the plainest possible language. Bhima, the faithful son, could not muster courage to accept it and finally the girl requests Kunti to help her. She has a firm conviction that being a woman Kunti would be able to understand her plight. I remember that as a young girl I was really full of admiration for Kunti as she allowed her brave son to spend some time with Hidimba, the Rakshsi! So considerate of her!
But later on when I came to know of the real reason behind her approval, I was disgusted. It is again Kunti’s firm guidance and far-sighted statesmanship that is depicted in the Mahabharata where she approves of Hidimba’s infatuation for Bhima. This approval is based on her being conscious of the need for allies in their forlorn condition. Kunti, therefore, orders Bhima:
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. (157.47-49)
It is absolutely clear from the above lines that Kunti as a far-sighted statesperson, uses Hidimba as a tool to provide them with a powerful son to be used in war against Kauravas. The epic shows how right and prophetic Kunti had proved to be. Ghatotkacha, the fruit of this union, proves to be very useful for them during the exile, and later as Arjuna’s savior from Karna’s infallible weapon at the cost of his own life.
When Kunti, along with her five sons, decides to leave the forest, she does not, even for a second, think about Hidimba. What happens to Hidimba? She is left in the forest all by herself. With no male relative to look after her and carrying Bhima’s child in her womb, the proud Hidimba does not cry and plead. She accepts her fate. Depicted to be a pure and unadulterated person without having any ambitious dreams except a pure love for Bhima, this forest girl is just the opposite of Draupadi who knows how to have her own way. Her dignity is worth praising as without a drop of tear or piteous entreaties, she accepts her fate. No repentance, not even any emotional blackmail on account of the son that she carried in her womb with no male relations to take care of, she like an independent woman presents a true picture of dignified womanhood.
But could Kunti not be a little sympathetic? Was it because Hidimba came from a different culture? A non-Aryan woman and without any coffers to promise at that. The only thing that she could give them was her only son, Ghatotkacha, to be sacrificed in the Mahabharata war. Ironically Ghatotkacha, the eldest of all Pandava progeny is used as a prey in the war and his proud and brave mother sends him to the war without ever complaining of the injustice having been meted down upon her. I wonder would the Kuru clan made Ghatotkacha a king had he survived the war? Was he not the eldest among all Pandava sons? Why Ghatotkacha and his mother were discriminated against? What does Dharma say in these matters? Dharma as usual is the most ambiguous word and is used as per the suitability of the powers that be.
I was able to appreciate why Himachali people have erected a temple dedicated to her and worship her as reigning deity of Kullu valley. The annual Rath yatra during the Kullu Dussahra does not start till Hidimba Devi’s chariot leads the procession. At least the people of Himachal have tried to undo the injustice done to this proud, unsung heroine of the Mahabharata. It will be with a renewed reverence that I would visit the temple of Hidimba, now onwards.
I feel humble even to think about the kind of sacrifices that this unacknowledged heroine of the Mahabharata has made.