Book Reviews

How Gender Shapes the Mahabharata Narrative

S. Brodbeck & B. Black (ed.):
Gender and Narrative in the Mahabharata, Routledge, 326 pages, paperback $ 32.

This important book brings together papers presented in the July 2005 SOAS conference, “Epic Constructions: gender, myth and society.” Why is it that, even in the 21st century, India cannot throw up a single scholar to participate in a foreign seminar on its greatest cultural monument, the Mahabharata? The participants are all from England and America, except one from Germany. This sad state of affairs holds true also for the Croatian Academy of Sciences’ international conferences on Sanskrit epics and puranas at Dubrovnik since 1997. Whether the 15th World Sanskrit Conference in New Delhi in January 2012 broke new ground or not awaits publication of the proceedings.

The book validates Vyasa’s claim, “what is here may be elsewhere; what is not here is nowhere else.” Modern concerns regarding gender are reflected back into its narrative structure, showing how complex is the embedding in a work that is a male composition four times over: Vyasa-> Vaishampayana-> Sauti-> bards. The excellent introduction places the Mahabharata socio-historically in the light of the latest scholarship, covers the conference topics and provides a valuable overview of gender studies in the context of the epic. The editors make the pertinent point, usually lost sight of, that Vyasa’s chief concerns are “the problems and possibilities of government” right from within the individual to the household, the society and beyond to the cosmic level. Distinguishing between gender and sex, the editors go by Judith Butler’s view that the former is not a stable identity but a social role that has to be reaffirmed time and again by being acted out. The papers set out to explore how the Mahabharata treats gender “as an identity that is always fragile and conditional”.

The concordance presenting the Critical Edition with the K.M. Ganguli English translation chapter by chapter is an invaluable aid. It can easily be extended to the M.N. Dutt translation—the only other English version of the vulgate that is almost complete (Dutt omits “offensive” passages where Ganguli Latinises)—to serve a wider readership. There is a very helpful “family tree”, an excellent bibliography, index and glossary. The printing is flawless and the cover is an eye-catching late 17th century Mysore mural of Bhima, Kichaka and Draupadi.

A very important finding is that “there is not a monolithic stridharma for all women in all situations”, conduct being dependant on the role being played. The papers seek to explore these aspects not, as usual, in the didactic sections of the epic but through the characters whose passions spin the plot, and the society they inhabit. The women make significant speeches, even though these pass through multiple male filtering of the composer and its rapporteurs—the phenomenon of “gendered ventriloquism”. There is, however, a development of which the editors seem to be unaware. In recent times there has been many a reinterpretation on stage by women of the Mahabharata heroines: the Oriya Mahari Panchakanya dance of Ratna Roy, Kanak Rele’s Mohiniattam Yuganta, Teejan Bai’s “Pandavani” recitals, Shaoli Mitra’s one-woman plays and Mallika Sarabhai’s performances—all powerful expressions of “female ventriloquism”. There has even been a play on Madhavi by a male playwright, Bhisham Sahni.

The epic narrative repeatedly challenges gender’s expected role. Thus, the male’s progenitive and protecting role is questioned when polygamous kings, failing to sire a male heir, invoke levirate. Similarly, the subservient, docile female model is discarded when Dirghatama’s disgusted wife sets him adrift on a raft, or when Devayani first solicits Kacha and then forces Yayati to wed her, while her maid Sharmishtha seduces him. Madayanti and Gandhari, frustrated with abnormally long pregnancies, try to deliver the foetus artificially. Ambika and Sudeshna, violating the obedience expected of the pativrata, despatch maidservants to Vyasa and Dirghatama.

Further, there is no single standard of conduct in gender. Bhishma disobeys his guru Parashurama and duels with him; Babhruvahana kills his father Arjuna; the Pandavas kill their grand-uncle and guru; Matsyagandha and Kunti give in to Parashara and Surya’s lust only after obtaining the assurance that they will regain virginity. Shakuntala, Ganga and Satyavati agree to wed only if their conditions are met. Where Shakuntala berates Dushyanta in his own court for not acknowledging their son and Draupadi condemns Kuru elders in their hall for not protecting her, Kunti casts Karna away fearing scandal. Draupadi’s polyandry is a cause célèbre that gets her abused publicly as a whore while Pingala the prostitute is a guru for moksha-seekers. Bhima, Arjuna and Samba cross-dress with destructive results. Vidula (the critical edition creates considerable confusion by spelling this as “Vidura”) chastises her son for running away in battle. Kunti burns six tribals alive and goads her sons to take revenge and win back their inheritance. The Pandavas suffer severe verbal drubbing from their common wife. Mighty Bhishma, Drona and Kripa confess that, bound to Duryodhana by need, they are like eunuchs, unmanned. King Bhangashvana prefers to remain a woman; Arjuna, warrior par excellence, chooses to be a transvestite. Amba commits suicide to change her gender but is reborn female and by sheer happenstance acquires manhood at Sthunakarna’s expense. Shikhandi’s gender remains indeterminate, reflected in Ashvatthama splitting her/him in two.

This confusion regarding gender roles is a major contributor to the crisis of dharma portrayed in the epic. It aggravates the dharma-shankara medley created by kshatriya Bhishma and Yudhishthira assuming brahmin renunciant postures while brahmin Drona, Kripa and Ashvatthama become violent warriors. Significantly, both in Ramayana and Mahabharata Parashurama, the brahmin-warrior who has been elevated to the status of an avatar of Vishnu, has to admit defeat at the hands of kshatriya Rama and Bhishma. This would seem to be a move towards restoring the normal varna-dharma, but that is not to be. Ominously, the practitioners of such distorted dharma—Bhishma, Drona and Kripa—all serve Duryodhana, evil Kali incarnate, and his brothers who are rakshasas reborn.

Two of the eleven papers by Nick Allen and James Fitzgerald deal with Bhishma, the egotistical sublime and archetypal misogynist, a figure unique in world literature. Allen expands Dumezil’s theory of a tri-functional Indo-European social paradigm by proposing “transcendence” as a fourth function, typifying it in Bhishma’s role as match-maker which has not been studied previously. Allen does not notice that most of the brides Bhishma arranges (Ambika, Ambalika, Madri) become their husbands’ doom, invariably through coition, which has psychological implications relating to his own lifelong celibacy. Fitzgerald shows the limitations of the Freudian approach to Bhishma, specifically in terms of the Oedipus Complex and recommends adopting the structuralist approach of Levi-Strauss for richer insights.

Draupadi, the major female figure, is the subject of two papers by Angelika Malinar and Laurie Patton and part of Alf Hiltebeitel’s study. None of these, however, discusses the significance of her unique birth—full-grown from ritual flames like a kritya for the destruction of the kshatriyas. Malinar analyses the Yudhishthira-Draupadi dialogues to show how the portrayal of Draupadi challenges the traditional role of women as weak and subordinate. She is “fearsomely able” (Stephanie Jamison), a confident rhetorician and openly critical of men’s conduct. Patton’s analysis of Draupadi’s interactions with Satyabhama and Sudeshna brings out the multiple gender roles played out even in single samvada. Hiltebeitel examines two bird tales (Mandapala-Lapita-Jarita in the Adi Parva and Brahmadatta-Pujani in the Shanti Parva) on the theme of friendship and presents a fascinating analysis of the sakha-sakhi relationship of the three Krishnas (Krishna-Draupadi-Arjuna) that reaches out to the fourth (Krishna-Dvaipayana), tracing it back to the image of two birds on a tree that is not just Upanishadic but originates in the Rig Veda. However, his glossing Krishna’s joke about Arjuna’s “pindaka” as “swelling on cheeks” hardly matches Draupadi’s annoyance. The primary meaning is “calf”; swollen calves, not cheeks, would characterize an incessant traveller like Arjuna and the wandering horse. A secondary meaning is the phallus. Thus, it is a double entendre incorporating the meaning of Arjuna’s name “Brihannala” (large reed/rod), and Draupadi’s ritual role of lying with the sacrificial horse.

Brian Black presents a very interesting argumentum ab silentio for the significant presence of women (prominently Gandhari and Draupadi) as silent, though not phantom, listeners and influencing the plot as overhearers and then as speakers. But what of their awesome destructiveness?

Simon Brodbeck examines at length a novel proposition: how does marriage fit in with the karmayogic path to salvation? His wide-ranging discussion covers Rama, Buddha, Nala and Yudhishthira. What about Arjuna, who is urged to become a karmayogi? None of the Pandavas died in battle, yet they achieved salvation because they were avatars—is that the soteriological stand of Vyasa? Brodbeck proposes that Krishna’s karmayoga presents “a spiritualized pravritti outlook” contrasting with Bhishma’s neutered dharma of nivritti. The pativrata cannot be abandoned by kshatriyas; she has to drop dead like Draupadi. Yet, even after losing his body, Yudhishthira cannot but approach her with a question that remains floating in the empyrean. What is Vyasa implying?

“Gender-bending” in the characters of Arjuna and Shikhandi, argues Andrea Custodi, is in terms of the challenge, “Show you are a man!” However, the proposed connection with Shiva as ardhanarishvara—a later development—is dubious, as is the assertion that Arjuna as a bhakta feminizes himself in relation to Krishna and Draupadi (who wears the pants during the exile). No documentation is cited in support of Aravan being Krishna’s son, so that when Krishna turns into his bride for a night, Aravan one-ups Oedipus and sleeps with his father. In Shikhandi-Arjuna killing Bhishma he sees an Oedipal alliance of mother-son (Amba is as grandmother to Arjuna and also his brother-in-law as Shikhandi) against the father-figure of Bhishma. Like Fitzgerald who prefers Levi-Strauss to Freud, Custodi suggests that the Lacanian treatment of sexuality fits the situation more than the Freudian. Actually, neither fits our myths comfortably; the Jungian approach is more sympatico, its insights about archetypes, the anima and the animus providing rich insights into the Mahabharata. However Custodi makes the very important point that beneath the surface of docile feminism runs a lethally powerful undercurrent of vengeance. Draupadi is much like the vengeful Demeter-Erinys and a virgin war-goddess like Athene, born full-grown, crying havoc and letting loose the dogs of war. It is Gandhari’s baleful glance that decimates the Yadavas.

Georg von Simson studies Samba in the context of faked gender against the background of lunar and solar myth. Shikhandi is the weak sun at the winter solstice; Bhishma the dying sun. Samba is the new moon whose disguised maleness is exposed as the destructive thunderbolts of the monsoons, a period of chaos. Nature symbolism and gender symbolism are, thus, closely allied. Further, Samba is Shiva’s boon to Krishna and that is the source of his destructive potential.

Arti Dhand contrasts Shuka and Sulabha’s soteriological approaches in which gender is apparently irrelevant. She proposes that Shuka’s salvation represents the paradigm of purusha indifferent to prakriti’s snares, exposing the misogyny latent in the epic. The other papers, however, disprove this idea of the epic being misogynous.

It is difficult to justify inclusion of Emily Hudson’s study of Dhritarashtra’s lament in the Adi Parva on the themes of grief, paternity and time. Though it shines a bright light into the dark recesses of his mind, what does it have to do with gender? The editors’ claim that the father-son relationship of Dhritarashtra-Duryodhana is a major “gendered theme” sounds like special pleading. Why, then, is there no study of Kunti and Gandhari’s contrasting relations with their sons and of Mayavati’s with Pradyumna which is very Oedipal, or of Arjuna’s with Babhruvahana, Iravan and Abhimanyu, Shantanu and Vasudeva’s with their eight sons, Krishna’s with Samba and Vyasa’s with Shuka? Hudson’s study would have been richer if it had also covered Dhritarashtra’s plangent lament in the second chapter of Shalya Parva.

This is a volume that both Indologists and gender specialists will greatly benefit from. However, while the editors have explained the absence of studies on female rivalry (Devayani-Sharmishtha, Kadru-Vinata), the lack of any reference to the most glaring instance of a “used woman”, Madhavi, to the prostitute Pingala extolled as a guru for moksha-seekers, and to the adulterous Ahalya and Ruchi is puzzling. So is the unawareness of the intriguing concept of “kanya”, analogous to the European “Kore”, a status retained by Satyavati, Kunti, Draupadi and Madhavi despite motherhood. It is a distinct variation in gender-role compared to the “sati” like Gandhari, Damayanti, Savitri, Sita, Shrutavati. At the opposite pole of “kanya” is Bhishma the perpetual kshatriya brahmachari (a dharmik contradiction in terms). Exploration of this using the Jungian concepts of Anima and Animus promises rich insights.

The gender issue of the unwanted child remains untouched. Kali-Satyavati and Pritha-Kunti are given away by their fathers Uparichara and Shura. Vishvamitra rejects Shakuntala, Sharadvan abandons Kripa and Kripi, Kunti casts Karna away.

There is no linking up with the origin of the Lunar dynasty itself being characterized by gender-anomaly springing from Budha’s union with Ila who alternates between male and female. There is a special relationship between the Chandravansha and Shiva who wears the crescent moon on his matted locks. It is significant that those challenging traditional gender roles (Ila, Arjuna, Shikhandi, Shri-Draupadi, Samba) are all Shiva’s creations or are linked to him. The roots of the gender-confusion reach into the far backward and abysm of time when gods and titans churned out the nectar of immortality and Vishnu became the seductress Mohini to cheat the Asuras of their share. That led to the anomalous union, narrated in the Agni and Skanda Puranas, of Shiva and Mohini, producing Hanuman and Ayyapan. Parallel to this, in South Indian folk tradition, Krishna as Mohini becomes Aravan (Iravan)’s bride before the Pandavas sacrifice him for ensuring victory. Finally, does Vyasa’s anguished outcry at the end—“why is dharma not practised”—imply that the confusion regarding dharma which his composition has depicted at such length is insoluble? Hopefully, a future publication will cover these gaps.


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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Comment awesome analysis of an immortal epic

nirosha keerthi
22-Dec-2014 03:52 AM

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