Mar 28, 2023
Mar 28, 2023
The Brides of the Bharatas is an attempt to look at some events in the Mahabharata from the standpoint of some of its central female characters, all brides of the Bharatas - Gandhari, Satyavati, Ambika, Kunti and Draupadi. These women are all angry - angry with their men, angry at what they have been subjected to by them, and their anger bursts out in torrents in these monologues.
I was but a field for the Bharatas. To Prince Dhritarashtra, to be precise. And that is how they referred to me often: Dhartarashtra-kshetra, the field of Dhritarashtra. Kshetra means a field, a spot of ground, a bit of soil, a patch of land, where you sow seeds and let time run its course for you to reap the crop.
I was never given any more right than a field has in the matter of its produce. How I had to stand and watch as a helpless bystander as my pretty children all grew up to be evil, masters in the wicked ways of the world, encouraged by a father whose greed for power was the very essence of his being!
Poor man! That is, if a field has the right to feel so about its owner, its cultivator, who tills it and farms it. Prince Dhritarashtra was brought into this world to be a king and the moment he was born it was proved he should never become one because he was blind. He grew up with the one cruel reality never fading from before his sightless eyes: that he shall never have power in his hands though he was born to wield all the power of the Bharatas. No wonder he became the embodiment of greed for power.
I came to Hastinapura precisely as that - a fertile field for the seeds of Dhritarashtra. The previous generation of the Bharatas had been very unlucky in the matter of offspring. The eldest, Prince Devavrata Bheeshma would not marry because of a vow he had taken; the second, Prince Chitrangada died before he was old enough to marry; and the youngest, Prince Vichitraveerya, died without issues though he was wedded to two princesses. The next generation was brought to the world by that strange abominable custom of niyoga whereby a brother of her deceased husband produces offspring in the woman. Well, not so abominable perhaps, if you consider women as mere fields - should it matter to the fields what seeds are sown in them, whose seeds are sown in them? Their only function is to germinate the seed, and nurture it so long as it needs its nourishment.
The assiduity of the Bharatas is renowned. They were particular that this time they needed a field that would give them plenty of yield and fast enough. And they came for me - it was widely whispered round that I had received a boon that I shall become the mother of a hundred sons. The most fertile piece of land! The Bharatas wanted it.
Men consider their wives as mere fields but strangely when it comes to their own daughters they are touchy! The daughters are not mere fields for someone! Would they realize that their wives are also someone’s daughters!
Matrimonial relations between the Gandharas and the Bharatas were nothing new. Even Emperor Hastin, the founder of Hastinapura, had desired connections with us and got a Gandhari princess for his son Ajameedha. Yet my father would not have given me over to the Bharatas on any account, except that if he had not done so it would have meant certain death to himself and all the male members of our family and to countless number of our men in a brutal war. Fangs of blood and violence would have ripped open all of Gandhara and all there would have been razed to the ground. Our land, and all in it, would have been destroyed mercilessly, as pitilessly as a wild elephant in a lotus pond destroys all its flowers. The name of the warrior who headed the Bharata family meant dread - both literally and figuratively.
Bheeshma meant dread.
Yet father was reluctant. For one thing, the prince for whom I was being sought had no Bharata blood in him though they claimed he was a Bharata. His mother was the Kashi princess Ambika and father, the sage Vyasa. For another, he was born blind. And, besides, it was whispered that he was a slave to uncontrollable passions, his personality having got twisted by the violent winds of opposing forces amidst which he grew up thirsting for power and respect but winning only protection and pity.
When I stepped into the portals of Hastinapura, I made a shock. I was blindfolded, and had to be lead by a maid to make obeisance to my elders. I could feel the awesome stillness that engulfed the palace, after the sound of the quick hot breaths the lungs sucked into dozens of bosoms stricken by an agonizing confusion.
With that single act I had done what my father wanted to do with his weapons but could not. I had struck a blow to the mighty Bharatas from which they were never going to get up. They wanted a field, a fertile field, for the seeds of Dhritarashtra and they were going to have that fertile field. But nothing more. Love cannot be commanded by a threat of weapons and Gandhari was not going to be ordered to be a loving guide to the blind prince of the Bharatas.
Women do not necessarily grow to love the man they marry against their wishes. Often it is only to tolerate them, to submit to them that they learn. They learn to resign to their fate.
My act of blindfolding myself was not an act of self-denial in the sense of denying the pleasures of the world that come to us through our eyes because they were denied to my husband. It was not a noble act at all. It was an act of vengeance. Gandhari too was a kshatriyaa, a warrior-woman. If prince Bheeshma was mighty, so was she. He had his weapons and she had hers.
How I wished I could see the faces of those shocked men and women assembled in the reception hall of Hastinapura on that day as I stepped into it, alighting from my chariot helped by my maids and Brother Shakuni! But no, I can’t both give the shock and enjoy seeing it.
Vengeance is wicked, you might say. Yet, it is. I have suffered more than enough through my long life for it. And yet I say, no one has the right to force another human being to do what he does not want to do. And certainly no woman should be forced to wed a man not of her liking. A woman should be able to go to him with the most holy of attitudes, with love filling her heart to the brim. For she is to receive a part of him into her and hold it there, nurture and nourish it into a human being. For, through that act she is becoming a part of the timeless act of creation, she is becoming the creator of new life.
But if that man is hateful to her, there can be nothing more detestable, nothing more nauseating than having to submit to that act of receiving his seeds and then having to hold his seeds in her. No doubt this is something only a woman can understand, only a woman who had had to submit to that unmentionably horrendous act - for instance, a woman who has been raped by a monster.
With love the act, the process of creation, is wonderful, but without love it is the most horrid thing in the world. The tragedy of it is that the child born is not only his but also hers. As much hers as his - in fact, much more hers than his. And every time she loves him because he is hers, she will be forced to love what is his. The most unenviable position of women! Having to take care of, with no alternative but to take care of, what belongs to a man she hates with all her heart.
I was given no option in the matter, I had no choice. I was forced to offer myself as a field to a man for whom I had no tender feelings in my heart; forced through a threat to my father’s life and to all else that he held dear in the world.
How conceited a man can grow in his own glory - Prince Bheeshma thought I would be happy once Dhritarashtra was forced on me.
A woman has a right for vengeance. Every woman has a right to her revenge if she is forced to become a field, an object, an abject thing and nothing more.
Where women are forced to submit their bodies against their will to men’s purposes, where women are significant only as female human bodies and not as human beings, evil shall flourish. The Bharatas had forced themselves on me. They had forced themselves on the princesses of Kashi, Ambika and Ambalika, and they had forced themselves on the princess of Madri, Pandu’s wife.
Perhaps I should have stopped my children from going the evil way. But I had no power to do so. They gave me none.
Princes are not brought up by their mothers. Men decide what they shall become, not the mother. The king decides what they shall become, not the queen. The queen is given no say in that matter. And that is right in a way, isn't it? It is right that the field shall have no say in how the produce from her is to be used.
And yet I came to love Dhritarashtra – nature’s anaesthesia, perhaps. Or maybe that is what it means to be a woman to love even those who trample her. But that is another story.
A lotus is beautiful, you consider it divine, you call it the miracle of nature, you see the glory of the Creator in it—such beauty and it has bloomed in mire, in dirt! But no woman wears the lotus on her head—that honor goes to the flowers that bloom in the well-tended gardens. A lotus is wonderful, but just wonderful enough to offer at the feet of kings, of the gods, of great men, but not wonderful enough to wear on one’s head. Fit for the feet, not for the head.
The footwear on your feet are soft, are beautiful, are convenient. They protect your feet from heat, from the pebbles on the path, from the thorns in the jungles, from dirt. But they are made of leather, the skin of animals and they forever remain accursed by their birth. You can wear them everywhere but before a place of worship you have to remove them; they are inauspicious, tainted. Why, you do not take them even inside your homes. Their limit is your doorsteps.
My father knew this as well as anyone else, if not more. For he was himself a king of sorts, a chieftain, but of the lowborn. Dasharaja was the chief of the fisher folk. He knew that just as he would not be allowed to sit in the assembly of other chiefs of noble birth, his daughter shall never be welcome as their bride.
And yet a king, an emperor, fell in love with me – perhaps through the power of the blessing of the rishi whom I bore a child – and when that happened my father insisted that I shall be given him only on condition that the eldest son born to me by the emperor shall be his heir. The emperor was taken aback, naturally. And he wouldn’t submit himself to this atrocity, for he loved his son, already a fine young man, prince Devavrata, more than anything else in the world. So the emperor went bake to Hastinapura without me.
My father insisted on this condition because his knowledge of the ways of palaces told him that only as the mother of the future king would I be able to gain some respect in Hastinapura. Without that I would have been reduced, he feared, to the level of a palace sweeper once the emperor’s fancy for me came to an end or he himself left this world. Emperors must after all die as everyone else and Emperor Shantanu was already quite old.
But the emperor’s desire for me was so great that he lost all interest in life and the affairs of the state. From palace whisperings the young son learned what ailed his father and came for me. He vowed with the gods as his witnesses that he shall never claim the right to the throne and shall remain a celibate all his life.
I was welcomed into the palace of Hastinapura as the most hated woman. Even the king’s longing for me turned into loathing the moment he learned that it was the terrible vows of his son that had fetched me for him. It was as though a drum of water had suddenly been emptied over the fire in his heart.
I never wanted to be a queen or an empress—I would have been quite happy as the wedded wife of one of the fishermen along the bank of Yamuna. I would have risen with the rising sun to see him off to his day’s work with his nets and stood waiting for his return, praying to Mother Yamuna for his safety. I would have been perfectly contented to bear his children to accompany him in his work as they grew up and later to support him when he was too old to go fishing. Or I would have been happy living alone in the hope that one day my son, the son of the rishi, would come back after finishing his studies under his father and then I would see men falling at his feet in reverence. Even I would go and touch his feet for he would be a rishi himself—I had imagined it all again and again in my idle hours sitting on rock-protected strips of marble on the banks of Mother Yamuna. How happy I would be as he stopped me from bending and instead himself fell at my feet, his mother’s feet! A rishi touching my feet, a rishi who is the very flesh of my flesh, the life of my life!
I was quite content.
The emperor never forgave me my father’s sin—for what was caution to my father was sin to him. Years passed without the emperor, now my wedded husband, ever entering my chamber. What was so tempting before was sheer venom now, a venom so powerful that his very contact with it would blow off all that he held dear in life.
And then it was after the Rajaguru and his nobles reminded him of his duty to the empire, the duty to give it an heir, that he finally yielded and came to me.
It was a man coming to a woman to fulfill his duty! Two bodies joined momentarily to use, yes, to use, one of their abilities. A male and a female body meeting to bring new life into this world.
I am an empress and crude words do not befit my speech but if I could put it bluntly this is what I would say: we mated that night. Yes, mated, like animals.
Nor were the two products of my womb – one was too impetuous and it cost my little child his life itself before he came to know what life was, what youth was. And the other, a mental wreck, too died not long after paying the price of his parent’s sins with his own life. He was created holding all passions back, in a disinterested, mechanical act. And his heart was like a desert land that thirsted for the rains of love. Came the two princesses of Kashi, Ambika and Ambalika, my Vichitraveerya jumped into the bottomless ocean of passionate love and sensuality. The whirlpools caught him and before long he had also left this world. The Emperor had died years ago.
The Bharatas’ dream of a glorious, everlasting dynasty flickered in the storms of these tragic events; the empire seemed to flounder before their very eyes. Accusing fingers of every subject of Hastinapura rose and pointed at me – they demanded an heir to the throne. But for me, the noble Devavrata would have become their king and they would have been happy under him. I, the low-born fisher maid, had mixed my blood with the noble Bharata blood and produced weaklings who could not even survive long enough to produce further offspring to themselves.
I approached Devavrata. Even my father begged him. But he was not willing to swerve from his vows which had by now become absurd. Bheeshma was proud of his vows and he would not break his vows even to save one of the two vows he had taken. He wasn’t going to be helpful in producing an offspring who would sit on the throne of Hastinapura, nor would he sit there himself. He cared not if his refusal meant the end of the Bharata dynasty.
Then I remembered my son, by now a great rishi before whose feet crowned heads bowed, a man less of this world than of another. My Krishna, whom his father called Dwaipayana because he was conceived on an island, was now the great sage Vyasa to the people.
He came and I asked him the meanest thing I could ask of a rishi: the services of his body for a few moments it would take to sow seeds in the field of Vichitraveerya. I wanted him to go to Ambika. After all, Vichitra was his half-brother and Ambika was Vichitra’s widow. He knew of the custom of Niyoga. I reminded him of his duty to his mother and explained to him his mother’s helplessness. He yielded. He asked for time to finish his austerities first but it was time that I did not have. He yielded again.
Accepted custom or no custom, sacred practice or no practice, to ask a young woman to offer herself to a man other than her husband – not in marriage, not to live with him as the wife and beloved, but for a few moments for a physical act, to offer her body to another man so that he may deposit his seeds in it to germinate and grow – that is the most loathsome act I have had to do in my whole life. And I did it. I was duty-bound – again duty-bound – to do it. The Rajaguru, the nobles, the common men and women in the streets and fields across the vast lands of the Bharatas, all demanded it of me, and I did it.
Asking Ambika humiliated me more intensely than asking my son Krishna. Maybe, because the physical act remains with the woman for nine long months but with a man it is a fact of a few moments. As for mental tortures, who among the living can escape guilt and self-loathing for the acts we commit in life.
Later I had to repeat it all with Ambalika. And once more I was forced to do it – that was the third time.
I offered the Bharatas Dhritarashtra and Pandu, and fate brought Vidura into this world as the son of a maid. But all three were begotten by my son and hence belonged to the Bharatas.
I had done my duty.
Our family has given many princesses to the Bharatas. King Bharata, that illustrious son of Shakuntala and Dushyanta the story of whose love has become one of the greatest romances of this land, the one that gave this dynasty its present name and who in ancient days conquered all of Aryavarta and gave it the name Bharata, himself had married a Kashi princess, the beautiful Sunanda.
But history does not record how the princesses who came to the antahpura of the Bharatas were treated. Their stories are lost among the glorious acts of the kings who fought in many lands and won all the wars. Amidst all that victory and glory who will bother about a few queens in the inner apartments of the palace?
But one thing strikes. The Bharatas seem to be overly fond of bringing women into their palaces against their wishes. I am told that Queen Satyavati was not very happy to come here as the empress of Shantanu, our father in-law. I mean mine and my sister Ambalika's.
Gandhari and Madri, two of our daughters in-law, certainly did not come here according to their wishes. A distraught Gandhari gave in when she found the alternative was death and destruction to her father and all that belonged to him. When Madri's brother Shalya refused to oblige Bheeshma, he was offered profuse wealth in exchange; and of course, coercion through the not very subtly veiled threat of Prince Bheeshma was there to force Shalya's hands.
We were brought to Hastinapura by Prince Bheeshma ' the same Bheeshma who had brought Mother Satyavati as a wife for his father, the same Bheeshma who would get Gandhari for Dhritarashtra, the same Bheeshma who would bring Madri for Pandu. He can take credit for bringing women for three generations of the Bharatas - for his father, for his half-brother, and for his nephews. So what, if he did not get a wife for himself?
I loved the prince I married very much, I loved him to distraction, and perhaps I loved him to his death - and so did my sister. Young Vichitraveerya ' he was younger than both me and Ambalika; he married very young because his elder brother Prince Chitrangada had died before attaining the age of marriage and Vichitra himself was sick ' perhaps Prince Bheeshma suspected that something might happen to him before he provided an heir to the throne of the Bharatas. Eventually that is what happened, anyway.
Young Vichitra knew what love and care was for the first time in his life after we came to the palace. A woman recognizes easily a man hungry for love and we found effortlessly such a one in him. The poor prince had grown up an unwanted child, a neglected child. His father was deep in grief and guilt over his second marriage, which took away the right to the throne from Prince Bheeshma, his very life-breath. His mother, incessantly humiliated by the nobility in the court, forever neglected by the emperor, effusively respected by Prince Bheeshma - given the empty, formal respect due to a woman who was his mother only because she had married his father - had grown silent and withdrawn. She spent all her time in her chamber, which she had rendered dark by means of curtains. She hadn't wanted to be a queen or an empress, nor had she wanted to be a queen mother. An emperor's longing for her had brought her to the palace and once in the palace she had ceased to get even his formal love. Love had dried up in her heart, as a river dries up reaching a desert. The noblemen and ladies who crowded the palace shunned the prince of mixed blood. And, anyway, it was his elder brother who was going to succeed the emperor to the throne.
Now, his young heart thirsty for love filled for the first time, Vichitra learned not only to take love but also to give it. I have known very few people who could love the way he did; there was such depth in his love, such intensity, such transparent passion, and such total generosity. Probably he was so filled with gratefulness at someone coming to love him ' and two beautiful, desirable, young princesses at that ' that his entire being melted and overflowed. But his emaciated being that had existed on a scanty diet all these years could not withstand this torrential, deluge-like onslaught of passionate love. As for us, we were too young to understand the need to restrain. In his very overflowing of passion, our prince lost his life.
We had seven years of Vichitra's love, seven years during which he left us not for a moment, day or night, not even for the affairs of the state. And yet neither Ambalika nor I conceived once. The palace whispered that it was because we sisters were both barren ' but Vichitra assured us: our love was enough for him. More than enough. He felt fulfilled by that.
Uncle Bheeshma arranged dasis for him - the palace was full of slave girls. Several of them were of kshatriya birth. But Vichitra refused to touch them. No, he couldn't be unfaithful to his Ambika and Ambalika, he said.
Then we heard other whispers - they said there was some curse on the Bharatas. Which is why neither of us was conceiving. They said the vow of celibacy that Uncle Bheeshma had taken was that curse finding its fulfillment. Just as our inability to conceive was. The line of the Bharatas would come to an end with Uncle Bheeshma and Vichitraveerya.
And then suddenly one day Vichitra died, and when that happened, life came to an end for us. Ambalika and I became breathing carcasses. Nothing mattered to us after that. To think that we had lost so completely in a young boy whom we had married so reluctantly, married because we had no alternative but to, snatched away and brought to Hastinapura as we were by the terrible prince Bheeshma from our Swayamvara hall.
Can dead bodied be hurt again - not easily, but yes, because we were to know an experience worse than the very death of Prince Vichitraveerya: an ancient custom the monstrosity of which grows in size the more you ponder over it.
Mother Satyavati was unwilling to accept defeat. She did not want it said that because of her the great line of the Bharatas came to an end.
Mother Satyavati came to my chamber one day. She was agitated beyond words and I knew whatever she had to tell me was extremely unpleasant both to her and to me. She told me we owed it to the people of the Bharata lands, to the throne of Hastinapura, to ancestors of the Bharatas, to posterity, and to Prince Vichitra himself that I produced an offspring. But how? Through the custom of niyoga. A brother produces offspring in the wife of his dead brother.
My entire being revolted against the very idea and yet I submitted ' not for the lands of the Bharatas, not for the sake of the throne of Hastinapura, not for the sake of the Bharata ancestors, not for the sake of posterity ' for I cared a hoot for these ' but for the sake of my dead prince. I did not want it said that the Bharata line came to an end with Prince Vichitraveerya.
And yet I was shocked beyond belief when I saw the sage entering my room. Who did I expect? Prince Devavrata Bheeshma, who never broke his vows even if the very heavens threatened all of earth with hellfire? But if he had taken the vow to remain a celibate all his life he had also taken a vow to stand by the throne of Hastinapura till his last breath. The two vows were in conflict now. And Mother Satyavati had asked me to expect my brother in-law in my chamber that night.
Yes, perhaps him.
Or maybe, one of the other Bharata princes - Prince Bahleeka, Emperor Shantanu's brother had sons not too old and they lived in the royal palaces.
What was it that shocked me so when I saw sage Vyasa entering my chamber that night? The fact that it was he who had entered my chamber? Or was it his appearance? I would perhaps never know. I was in no state to analyze my thoughts and feelings then nor am I in a state to objectively look at them now. Perhaps both, I suppose.
Anyway, if it is any consolation, I was later to learn that the sage was not so horrible and revolting in his normal state and was a very lovable person in his own way, though by no means a handsome man. His appearance at that time was because he was engaged in some form of terrible austerity.
As those wiry, dark arms smeared with ashes and I know not what else took me in them, I closed my eyes in unspeakable horror.
I was doing my duty to my prince and I had tried to do it as cheerfully as was possible, but I am born a princess, grew up among the finest things in the world, and my dreams were centered on a handsome prince all the years I had dreamed of being a mother. The sage and the idea of what he was doing with me, to me, were beyond my limits of endurance. In any case, it was not I who closed my eyes ' they closed themselves. It was not a voluntary, thought-out decision, but something that happened to me.
My son Dhritarashtra was born blind.
A blind prince has no rights of succession. Dhritarashtra could not succeed to the throne of the Bharatas. They needed another prince.
Now it was Ambalika's turn to submit herself. Again, she too turned pale at the sight of the sage and this despite knowing who she was to expect. But I have only pity or her.
Her child, to whom the name Pandu, the pale one, stuck, was born sickly pale.
No woman should have submitted even once to what I had had to go through. That is the most degrading thing in life I can think of. It is animals you to take to each other for breeding, not human beings. For men and women, it should be a coming together and merger of the spirit, mind and body ' in that order. A fusion brought about by love. With men and women creation of new life should not be an animal function. If performed as an animal act, subjection to it once will destroy in one stroke all that is noble in a woman. Yet I was asked to undergo that process a second time, so that the Bharatas could have a healthy prince without defects as the heir to their throne.
It was my maid that I sent to the sage this time. Even a mere human body such as I had by then been reduced to, not a human being but a human body, revolts from certain acts.
I was not altogether disappointed when I was seized by force by Prince Devavrata from my swayamvara hall. For, to be a Bharata queen is the greatest dream of all Aryan Princesses.
The outside world had no idea what women who became Bharata brides had to endure. I was shocked to learn that we were not to be his wives, but of his half-brother. And yet that half-brother loved me beyond words and made me feel fulfilled. But life had ceased to have any meaning to me the day my prince died. And I ceased to live after I had given the Bharatas a prince, whom they named Dhritarashtra. Yet I acted once more ' to perform that one act, the first act of revolt in my whole life: sending my maid in my place to the sage.
Perhaps I was a weakling; both of us, Ambalika and I, were weaklings. For I know one woman who had the courage to go through that experience more than once, and at the behest of her own husband.
I am talking of Pritha, Pandu's wife.
The woman who fought against Fate, the courageous widow who stood alone and faced the might of an empire which wanted to crush her and her children, a woman who commanded the gods themselves to do her bidding'so they speak of me. But am I all these? Am I any of these? How much of this is true, and how much false?
I, Pritha, the daughter of Devameedha Shoorasena of the Vrishnis, the woman known by the name of Kunti because she was adopted by King Kuntibhoja, have a unique position among the women of the Bharatas.
For all the might of the Bharatas, generations had passed since a princess had chosen a Bharata prince happily in a proper swayamvara and come to live in the Hastinapura palace with the tremulous excitement of a new bride. Emperor Shantanu had two wives ' no one knows exactly who his first wife really was. They say she was the river goddess Ganga, that she had one day walked up from the river and years later, after the birth of her eighth child, walked back into the river. Strange is the story of the love and life of this woman and the emperor.
And then, in his old age, Grandmother Satyavati had come to live as his empress in Hastinapuira. But it was as the most hated woman in all of Hastinapura that she had stepped into the palace. She was of low birth and her arrival had a precondition ' that her would-be firstborn son by the emperor shall inherit the throne of Hastinapura. And Hastinapura, which I have seen only divided into myriad groups of warring interests, rose up for once in unison, bound by a common hatred for her. That it was the emperor who wanted her and not otherwise did not bother the men who hated her. That poor woman of lowly birth had not come to the Bharatas as a happy bride.
Nor had the two princesses of Kashi, mothers of my husband Pandu and his brother. They were seized, along with their sister Amba, from their swayamvara hall, by prince Bheeshma while the whole assembly stood terror-struck before his might. And it was not to be his wives that he had captured them but to be the wives of his half-brother, still a boy, and incapable of winning a wife for himself. No kshatriya princess loves to marry a man who cannot win a wife for himself ' that the two princesses later came to adore the young prince they married is another matter.
How Gandhari came to Hastinapura is well-known. Had she not come, it would have been death and destruction to her father and her people. The adored daughter of an indulgent father, a young woman who loved to spend all her time in music and dance that were unique to her people, does not marry a blind man happily ' and Dhritarashtra had even been denied the right to the throne.
It was as though the Bharatas had a perverse fascination for the idea of getting unwilling mothers for their future princes. For, when Madri was brought here later, it was not again according to her wishes.
So I was the first princess in a long time to happily choose a Bharata prince for her man and come to Hastinapura with joy in her heart, dreams in her eyes, and her prince's hand in her hand.
But the joy was short lived. I soon discovered that Uncle Bheeshma was not too happy to have me for a bride for his younger nephew. For, not long after I arrived in Hastinapura I had a sapatni. Uncle Bheeshma had got another wife for Pandu the reason for which, to this day, eludes me. Sometimes I believe it is just that Prince Bheeshma believed it was for him to choose a bride for his nephew and ward and the prince had no right to acquire one for himself by himself. For certainly it was not a common custom among the Bharatas to wed more than one wife ' in the previous twenty-odd generations there had been only two or three kings who had married more than once princess. Besides, the family of the Bharatas had just recovered with the greatest difficulty and with recourse to an antiquated custom from the disastrous results of a young prince marrying more than one princess at a time ' prince Vichitraveerya had to pay the price of that error with his life and that had threatened to end the Bharata dynasty. There was no reason for Uncle Bheeshma to be eager to get a second bride for Pandu.
So that was it - uncle Bheeshma did not like the idea of Pandu getting a wife for himself; he believed it was for him to get a bride for young Pandu. He wanted me, the self-chosen wife of Pandu, to be denigrated to where he thought I belonged - a woman of secondary importance to Pandu and to the Palace.
But just as I was lucky in Pandu, I was lucky in Madri. Instead of becoming a competitor for Pandu's love, a rival, she became a younger sister to me. She was my opposite in most respects. I was worldly-wise, matured, perhaps a bit too matured for my age, with hardly any sentimentality about me. I had the spirit of a much older woman in me: the violent events into the middle of which I was born ' Mathura was in great turmoil in those days ' and the tragic happening that shook my life even before I was fully out of girlhood ' perhaps because of these. Whereas Madri had an ephemeral, ethereal quality about her. She was not concerned with anything in the world, no violent passions stormed about in her heart, calculations and machinations for position and possessions were entirely foreign to her nature. The only time I ever saw her in a state of passionate assertion about anything was in the last moments of her life ' after she had decided to enter the funeral pyre of Pandu. No one could dissuade her from that.
How have the Bharatas treated me, come to them to be their king's queen and the mother of their future king?
When I came to Hastinapura it was as the queen of the reigning king Pandu but when I came back from Shatashringa after the death of my king, I had suddenly become an ordinary woman whom no one wanted to see.
Questions were raised as to the parentage of the five children I had brought with me. By the men who had usurped my husband's throne in his absence I was told that there was no Bharata blood in my children or in Madri's children and as such they could not be treated as Bharata princes. Of course it was no surprise that they did so ' prince Dhritarashtra's greed for power was notoriously well-known and he had powerful coterie of people who supported him as it often happens when an unrightfull man claims to be the rightful heir to a throne. When I said that in that case neither my deceased husband nor Prince Dhritarashtra had any Bharata blood in them, I was abused in the meanest possible language ' I, their queen, the queen of their dead king, was abused like a woman of the street. And all I was demanding was my children's right to their father's throne and all I said about Pandu and Dhritarashtra was the bare truth ' they were sons born to the princesses of Kashi and their father was the sage Vyasa who was certainly not a Bharata. Where was Bharata blood in the veins of Pandu and Prince Dhritarashtra then?
Surprisingly, even the man who was reputedly justice embodied turned against my children. He who had vowed to stand by the throne of Hastinapura until his last breath deserted its rightful heirs and stood watching as it passed into unlawful hands. Uncle Bheeshma protected Prince Dhritarashtra and his children.
Silence is abetment where speech is called for. Inaction is abetment where action is called for.
As to my children, they were not even given the most fundamental right of ordinary citizens: the right to exist, the right to live. My Bheema was poisoned and the hands that did this murderous deed went scot-free. Later our home was set fire to and a hundred other felonies befell us and the offenders were never castigated.
A woman of iron will, they call me. I tell you, you would be that, too, if you had five darling children to look after, children born to be rulers of men and states and yet condemned by fate to beg for alms to fill their stomach, children whose very life was in danger every moment as their existence was a threat to those who were clinging desperately to a usurped throne against popular wish and will.
A woman who took her fate in her hands, they call me. I wish I hadn't, I wish no one would, if by that all you get is what I got ' endless years of grief and agony as fate in a fury tossed my children from one wicked situation to another, forcing me and them to hide from all civilization for our physical survival and to wander through forests infested with deadly animals and inhabited by deadlier brutes and savages, looking for subsistence in fruits and roots and the animals of the wild.
A woman who commands the gods themselves with the power of her mantras, they call me. And yet those mantras did not come to my aid when I wanted to save my king from his curse. The poor, poor man longed for a touch, a mere touch of mine, all those grief-filled years in Shatashringa and I, his wedded wife, could not appease that simplest of desires of an accursed man. Pritha, the woman who commanded the gods, had to stand a forced witness to the cruel agony of her husband when he longed for what was every man's by birth by the very laws of nature, longed for what is not denied even to base animals, and had to see him finally perishing a victim to his longing. The power of my mantras did not fetch the gods to my aid when my children were denied their right to the throne, when they were banished to Varanavata, when their house was set fire to, when they, after their escape, were forced to wander like fugitives from law amid lurking dangers. Nor did it come to her aid when she wanted to protect her firstborn from battle with his own brothers and faced death through it. That is Pritha's power over the gods for you.
Oh, yes, it came to her aid on other occasions. When she was but an ignorant girl and wanted to try out the power of a mantra given her by a rishi, it came to her in the form of a pregnancy to make her an unwed mother of a child whose father she couldn't produce before the world. She was forced to do that most accursed act of her life float down a river her firstborn, so that King Kuntibhoja, who had adopted her as a child, who loved her more dearly than he loved his own soul, would not have to hang his head in shame.
It did not come to her aid when her firstborn son, who was to the world Karna, the son of Radha - he was an equal to the noblest of princes in birth and superior to every one of them in nobility and velour - was treated like a common cur, for his crime of wanting to match his skill in weapons with his brothers and cousins. Lowborn, they called him. Son of a driver, fit only to drive their vehicles, they ridiculed. They - statesmen and teachers who had grown old with age, who should have recognized worth wherever they found it.
It did not come to her aid when that son of hers was forced to bend in the only direction from where support came, to Duryodhana and to evil, and finally met his sad end fighting on the side of evil.
But it came to her aid when her husband asked her to offer herself to other men so that she may bear him progeny which would open the gates of heaven for him. Remove all the euphemisms, and this is what Pritha's power over the gods gave her; children out of wedlock.
True, I sound bitter. Hasn't there been anything in Pritha's life to be happy about? Yes, there has been, without doubt. The love of a man who knew how to love with his heart, even if he could not with his body. And six children ' my four and Madri's two ' the like of whom the world will have to wait for a long time to see again. The love of someone who entered my life as my rival and became my greatest companion, my great solace, my sister ' Madri. And the love of a nephew whom the world worships as the very lord of the universe.
But suffering leaves its mark on the soul, I suppose, in spite of everything. And endless suffering certainly does ' suffering that seemed to have no end as it lasted through decades and decades. And to think that it was all 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.
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