Limerence and Lust as Ananke

in The Mahabharata*

Comment by Dr Bryan Reynolds
Editor of the International Journal of Cultural Studies

I have not met Pradip Bhattacharya personally. Unfortunately our paths have not crossed till now in our travels across the continents. But my co-Editor and friend Amitava tells me that Dr. Bhattacharya currently is the greatest and most reliable authority on Mythology and the Indian epics that he has come across. I believe my friend's assessment because Dr. Bhattacharya's profound knowledge of Sanskrit epical literature (not to speak of Western epics!) and the parallels and analogues of both Western and Eastern mythology offered here shine out from his "Limerence and Lust as Ananke in the Mahabharata". Prof Baral should be very happy with this paper because it has global literatures and mythology as its province which only the rarest of scholars can map out and navigate through. The paper is encyclopaedic in scope and perspective. Bhattacharya's prose and his own transcreations are limpid, luminous and models of clarity. Together with P. Lal's transcreations of classical texts which Bhattacharya generally uses, we have a "great combo" whose distilled wisdom leaves us better human beings than when we started reading. Truly a transnational and transformative paper on a very complex and compelling theme.


Vyasa, master raconteur, creates a many-splendoured web from which there was no escape then nor is there any now. The millennia separating us from Vyasa have not, surprisingly, dimmed the magic of his art that had entranced commoner, king and sage.

The Mahabharata articulates several themes: Time, Fate, the Quest for the Secret of Immortality and Eternal Youth, Dharma, Blindness, the Disqualified Eldest, the Royal Vices (Desire with its subsets Lust, Greed, Pride and Anger) etc.

In Greek mythology Ananke (Destiny/Daiva), caught in the serpentine coils of Kronos (Time/ Kala) encompasses the universe and is the mother of the Moirae,[2] the three fates. In the Mahabharata lust and limerence shape the destinies of men. Beginning with Uparichara Vasu, the paper traces how the mortal coils of lust crush generations of Kurus and strangle the Yadavas, virtually decimating the Kshatriyas.

Today humanity is no less enraptured with the erotic, psychedelic mirages created by lust and limerence. We may not be driven to our destruction like the Kurus if we heed Vyasa’s warning.

He holds him with his glittering eye

Vyasa, master raconteur, weaves together a bewildering skein of threads to create a many-splendoured web from which there is no escape, whether then or now. The millennia separating us from Vyasa have not, surprisingly, dimmed the magic of his art that had entranced Janamejaya the king and Shaunaka the sage:

“Shells were exploding over Leningrad. Enemy bombs were falling on the streets stirring up clouds of dust. On one of those spring days during the siege, Sanscrit language was being heard in the building of the Academy of Sciences on the Neva River embankment, in a room overlooking the side that was safer during the artillery strikes. First, in the original, and then in translation, Vladimir Kalyanov, a specialist on India, was reading Mahabharata, a wonderful monument of Indian literature, to his colleagues, who remained in the besieged city. He had started the translation before the war. He translated during the hard winter of 1941, with no light, no fuel and no bread in the city. Two volumes of books—one published in Bombay and the other in Calcutta—were lying on the table in the room. In the dim light of a wick lamp, he was comparing these two editions of Mahabharata, trying to find the best and the most accurate translation of the Sanscrit into Russian.

“When, after the war the first book of Mahabharata—Adi Parva was published in Leningrad, Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India, noted with great satisfaction that, even during the hardest times, the translation of the Indian epic into Russian was never interrupted.”[3]

Indubitably, “the story’s the thing, catching conscience of commoner and king.” [4] But what is it in this epic-of-epics, eight times larger than the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, denounced by Winternitz as “a literary monster” and by Oldenberg as “monstrous chaos”, that appeals so irresistibly to modern man in search of his soul, when its immediate audience—the enthroned monarch and the forest-dwelling sage — has long since sunk into the dark backward and abysm of time?

Seeking answers to questions such as these, I find a storyteller par excellence pitilessly laying bare the existential predicament of man in the universe. If, later in the epic, Vyasa shows us what man has made of man, in the very first book he plumbs the depths of the humiliatingly petty pre-occupations of the Creator’s noblest creation. Indeed, the dilemmas the characters find themselves enmeshed in cannot even be glorified as “tragic”. Perhaps, that is why we find the epic so fascinating—for, how many of us are cast in the heroic mould? We do not have to strain the imagination to reach out and identify with Yayati or Shantanu. We need no willing suspension of disbelief to understand why the Brahmin Drona should sell his knowledge to the highest bidder, or why Drupada does not protest too much when his daughter is parcelled out among brothers who had routed him in a skirmish. Passions do, indeed, spin the plot and we are betrayed by what is false within; then, as now, one need not to look for a villain manoeuvring without.[5]

If we resonate in empathy with sunt lacrimae rerum (the sense of tears in human things), we also thrill with joy on meeting the indomitable spirit of woman in an epic that many misconceive as a paradigm of male chauvinism. Whether it is Shakuntala proudly asserting her integrity and berating mealy-mouthed Dushyanta in his court; or Devayani passionately demanding that Kacha return her love and imperiously brushing aside a cheating husband; or Kunti refusing to pervert herself into a mindless son-producing machine to gratify her husband’s twisted desires— time and again it is woman standing forth in all the splendour of her spirited autonomy as a complete human being that rivets our attention and evokes our admiration.

The Mahabharata articulates several themes: Time, Fate, the Quest for Immortality and Eternal Youth, Dharma, Blindness, the Disqualified Eldest, Desire with its sub-sets Limerence, Lust, Greed, Pride and Anger, etc. In Greek mythology Ananke (Destiny or Daiva) entwined in the serpentine coils of Kronos (Time or Kala) encompasses the universe and is the mother of the Moirae (the three Fates). In the Mahabharata, we find Ananke manifesting as Lust and Limerence [6] in the Lunar Dynasty.

The Beginnings

Sauti the rhapsode tells Shaunaka and his followers that Vyasa’s kavya (poem)—which is also an itihasa (‘thus it happened’)—has three beginnings: “Some read the Mahabharata from the first mantra, others begin with the story of Astika; others begin with Uparichara” (Anukramanika, sloka 53). Section 63 of the Book of Beginnings (Adi Parva) tells the story of Uparichara Vasu, whom Indra made king of Chedi. Why begin with him? Well, having introduced the poem (Sauti does so too at the beginning of section 60), Vaishampayana is providing Janamejaya with an introduction to his ancestor Vyasa whose maternal grandfather Uparichara Vasu fathered fish-odorous Matsyagandha on Adrika, an Apsara-turned-fish, in the dark waters of the Yamuna:

“Desire stirred in him.
Girika was not near.
Desire maddened him.
Maddened with visions of Girika…
the semen fell in the waters of the Yamuna…
Adrika rushed to Vasu’s semen… and swallowed it.” [7] — I.63.46, 50, 57, 59

Girika, his queen, is herself the product of Kolahala’s rape of Shuktimati. Thus, romantic and sexual obsession, the keynote of Limerence, is struck and its maddening impact voiced. Catching but a glimpse of fish-odorous [8] Matsyagandha such lust inflames rishi Parashara that he needs must rape her in a boat mid-stream in the Yamuna, in public view, at daytime. Yojanagandha, now made lotus-fragrant and a virgin again by the satiated sage’s boon, keeps secret the birth of their son Vyasa. Later, her granddaughter-in-law Kunti, raped by Surya, is left holding the baby with the cold comfort of that same boon of virgo intacta. With no family support, she has to consign Karna to the mercy of the waters of Ashvanadi. Indeed, the story of the Lunar dynasty is a series of seductions, abductions and rapes: Tara, Urvashi, Sharmishtha, Shakuntala, Tapati, Ganga, Shuktimati, Satyavati, Amba, Ambika, Ambalika, Kunti, Madri, Ulupi, Subhadra.[9]

The seeds of lust were sown much farther back, the first instance being recounted by that paradigm of misogyny Bhishma to Satyavati, herself a fruit and a victim of this compulsive, obsessive passion. Brihaspati, guru of the Devas, rapes his elder brother Utathya’s pregnant wife Mamata. [10] Brihaspati’s wife Tara elopes with his disciple Chandra or Soma. As with Helen’s abduction, this results in a terrible war between Devas and Asuras, the titans espousing the cause of Chandra. Chandra, like his descendant Vichitravirya, falls victim to consumption because of unbridled sexual indulgence. Chandra and Tara’s son Budha is the first Chandravanshi, a branch of which comes to be known later as the Kurus or Kauravas.

In ancient times, Pandu tells Kunti, women were free:

“They slept with any men they liked
from the age of puberty;…
for the dharma of those times
was promiscuous intercourse.”— I.122.5,8

Kunti then recounts the story of Vyusitashva and Bhadra (section121) pointing out that Bhadra was able to have seven sons by lying with the corpse of her husband and therefore she might well have Pandu’s sons despite his curse of coital death. The irony lies in the close parallels between that king’s life and that of Pandu’s putative father Vichitravirya. For both sexual over-indulgence resulted in death:

“So strong was their passion,
So frequent their indulgence,
that he soon fell a victim
to consumption;” — I.121.17-18

A cardinal feature of Limerence is obsession, which makes its host oblivious of his duties. Budha’s son Pururava, the first king of the Lunar dynasty, neglecting his royal responsibilities chases after the apsara Urvashi and meets his end at the hands of sages when, greed-driven, he tries to seize their golden vessels. His grandson Nahusha, the first mortal to be chosen as king of the Devas, lusts after Indra’s wife Shachi and falls to perdition. [11] Nahusha’s son Yayati, learning nothing from his forefathers’ tragic flaw, becomes an archetype of desire-driven man, never satiated with sensual pleasure, ever thirsting for more. Limerence baits the hook with Sharmishtha and he is cursed by his father-in-law Shukra with senility. That is when a profound realisation dawns upon him that speaks to all humanity:

“Kama never ends,
Kama grows with feeding,
Like sacrificial flames
Lapping up ghee.
Become the sole lord of
The world’s paddy-fields, wheat-fields,
Precious stones, beasts, women--
Still not enough.
Discard desire.
This disease kills. The wicked
Cannot give it up, old age
Cannot lessen it.
True happiness
Lies in controlling it.
For one thousand years,
My mind lusted for pleasures.
Now, instead of resting,
I lust for more pleasure” — I.85.12-15

The exhortation is followed more in the breach. Rejuvenated by his vampiric assumption of his youngest son Puru’s youth, Yayati dallies with the apsara Vishvachi, although he had begged Shukra to restore his vigour because he was still infatuated with the sage’s daughter Devayani. Like his father Nahusha, doomed by lust, he is thrust down from Swarga. Only then does he realise that craving only brings the “bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit” [12] and exclaims:

“The wise say: Seven massive gates,
Tapasya, charity, serenity,
Self-control, modesty, simplicity,
and compassion for all creatures
lead to heaven.
Pride cancels all these….
I gave so much,
I performed many yajnas,
I am learned,
I keep my vows’ —
All vanity, all pride.
Give it up, absolutely.” — I.90.22, 26

His descendant Krishna repeats this lesson later to Arjuna:

‘“I am rich, I am high-born,
There is none like me.
I sacrifice, I give, I rejoice.”
Deluded by such ignorance…
They fall into a foul hell….

Hell has three gates:

Lust, anger and greed.
They ruin the atman.
Therefore, give up these three.’ — Gita 16.15, 16, 21.

Limerence and lust hound the Lunar dynasts down the generations like the Furies because they are doubly doomed. Their ancestress Devayani was obsessed with Kacha who cursed her that no Brahmin would wed her. That is why she seizes upon Yayati the Kshatriya ruler and browbeats him into marrying her. Her eldest son Yadu is disinherited and it is his descendants, the redoubtable Yadavas, who give in to lust and liquor and end up slaughtering one another in a drunken frenzy with the participation of Krishna himself.

Samvarana, Kuru’s father, is so possessed by the craze for hunting that his horse dies under him. Then he glimpses Tapati:

She stood, a black-eyed beauty
on the hill-top,
like a golden girl.
The hill, its creepers,
its bushes, all flamed
with the golden beauty
of the golden girl.”— I.173.27-28

Like Pururava with Urvashi, Samvarana exhibits the classic symptoms of Limerence:

“his heart aflame with kama,…
Like one possessed, he kept repeating
his love for her…
Like a man crazed
he wandered in the woods,
desperately searching…
the foe-chastising, love-smitten king
fell on the ground…
the king seemed to have shrivelled
into ashes” — I.173.41-43; 174.1; 174.4

Like Antony with Cleopatra, lost to the world in Tapati’s arms on the banks of the Sindhu, Samvarana remains oblivious of the twelve-year-long drought afflicting his kingdom. Taking advantage of this, the Panchalas take it over and Samvarana’s priest Vashishtha has to win it back (I.94.38-46). Samvarana and Tapati’s son is Kuru, the dynast, who ploughs the field called Kurukshetra after him that becomes the scene of the bloodiest of battles in our annals.

Vyasa pitilessly lays bare the tainted generations of Kauravas from Shantanu onwards, all afflicted with the same disease, Limerence and lust, that speeds them on inexorably to their doom, bringing home to us that,

“The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is Lust in action…
Mad in pursuit and in possession so…
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe.” — Shakespeare, Sonnet 129

Kuru’s descendant Shantanu is so infatuated with strange riverside women that he remains a mute spectator to Ganga drowning their seven sons, and approves his surviving heir abdicating his right to obtain Satyavati for him. In Shantanu’s earlier birth as Mahabhisha his lust got the better of him in Brahma’s court where Ganga did a Marilyn Monroe as “gusty winds uplifted her moon-white dress” (96.4) while he leered and she gazed back. Both are thrust down to earth. Ganga herself is sexually promiscuous—only in the Puranas will she become Shiva’s wife — seating herself wantonly on the right thigh of Pratipa while he is engaged in austerities and says, “I love you. Take me, my lord.”

He, however, is untainted with the lust that overwhelms Ganga and Mahabhisha:

“Beautiful one,” said Pratipa,
“I have never lusted for another’s wife,
or for women outside my caste.
This is dharma, this is my vow.” — I.97.6

Ganga persists:

“I am not ugly”, she said,
“I do not bring ill fortune, O raja
No one has cast a slur on me,
I am not unfit for sexual enjoyment.
I am celestial, I am beautiful,
I love you. Take me, my lord.” — I.97.7

She has no problem in shifting her “love” from father to son. Significantly, the limerent object for Pratipa’s son Shantanu is women who are not of his class. Both Ganga and Satyavati are non-kshatriya river women, one celestial, the other a fisher-girl; one far superior, the other much inferior. Of his father, Devavrata might well say, echoing Rama, “I think kama is much more potent than either artha or dharma. For what man, even an idiot like father, would give up a good son like me for the sake of a pretty woman?” [13] It is Devavrata who sets up a unique and utterly different paradigm at the opposite extreme of Yayatian lust. He attains the acme of misogyny, abjuring women wholly, earning the sobriquet “Bhishma, the terrible”.

The origin of Devavrata, however, is also rooted in Limerence. Dyau, eldest of the eight Vasus, was so obsessed with his wife that without a second thought he stole rishi Vashishtha’s cow to please her, calling down upon the Vasus the rishi’s curse of mortal birth.

According to Wendy Doniger, “the four major addictions (are often called) the vices of lust…gambling, drinking, fornicating, hunting…the royal vices…were also associated with violence, in the double sense of releasing pent-up violent impulses and being themselves the violent form of otherwise normal human tendencies (to search for food, take risks, drink, and procreate).” [14] The other facet of Kuru character that goes hand-in-hand with Limerence is lust for blood. It is while hunting to the point of exhaustion that Dushyanta, Uparichara and Samvarana fall victims to Limerence. Shantanu, too, spends most of his time hunting. It is while feeding this blood-lust that he meets Ganga and, swept away by Limerence as his ancestor Dushyanta was with Shakuntala, accepts her conditions unquestioningly. It is not, however, a one-sided affair. Ganga, the limerent object, is similarly afflicted:

“He stood there,
All his body
In horripilation.
With both eyes
He drank in her beauty,
And wanted
To drink more.
She saw the raja,
In shining splendour.
She was moved
With tenderness and affection.
She kept gazing
and gazing
and longed to gaze
even more.” — 97.28-29

Excess is the key word. At the entrance to the Delphic oracle two phrases were inscribed: gnothi seauton “Know yourself” and meden agan “Nothing in excess”. These principles ensure a meaningful life. To ignore them is to invite Ananke to step in.

It is ironic that Shantanu, whose name means “the child of controlled passions” (97.18), should be such a slave to Limerence:

“Captivated by her skilful love-making,
the raja was not conscious of
the months, seasons, years that rolled by.
He enjoyed her sexually in every possible way.” —I.98.12-13

Ganga is like the celestial nymphs who discard their offspring. Urvashi makes this clear to Kukutstha when he reproaches her for deserting their daughter:

“O King, my body does not change
when offspring are born.
True to my nature as a courtesan,
I do not rear children I give birth to.” [15]

Shantanu is so besotted that he ignores one of his primary duties as a king: ensuring an heir to the throne. Instead, lest she abandon him, he lets Ganga drown seven sons in succession. It is only when his sexual addiction is conquered by his concern for the fate of his eighth son that the spell cast by la belle dame sans merci is broken. Like the ensnared knights-at-arms, Shantanu is left wan and forlorn, the dry husk of a hero, a hollow man, his heroism sucked out by Ganga like a succubus. Inevitably, in his late middle age he cannot control yet another grande amour, this time for a fisher-girl. Shantanu’s reaction to Gandhakali parallels that of Parashara:

“She was fragrant,
Shantanu saw her,
>and desired her.” (100.49)

The king differs from the sage in his desire to possess for himself this beauty, unable simply to enjoy and pass on. The flaw in Shantanu’s character is stressed again:

“the fire of desire
ravaged his body…
Desire maddened him
He kept thinking
of the daughter of the Dasa chief.” —I.100.56-57

Limerence maddens. Yayati’s warning has fallen on deaf ears.

Herself a child of sexual incontinence and a victim of it as well, Satyavati sees her adolescent son die as Vichitravirya, like Agnivarna the last of the Raghus, [16]

“driven by passion, became a kamatma,
a victim of his own lust.” — I.102.64

She, “hungry for grandsons/but whose words/strayed from Dharma” (I.103.24) overrules Vyasa’s advice that the widowed queens observe a year-long vow to purify themselves of the dregs of seven years of sensuality and insists that he impregnate them immediately. Ananke strikes. Expecting Bhishma, shocked by the forbidding looks and piscean odour of the sage, they give birth to blind Dhritarashtra and sickly Pandu.

Like Yayati and Shantanu, his lustful ancestors, Pandu is addicted to the indiscriminate slaughter of animals, for, lust is

“murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel…” — Shakespeare, sonnet 129

Perversely killing a copulating deer-sage, he is cursed with coital death. [17]

It is now that Vyasa explicitly voices the underlying theme through Pandu’s lament that he has learnt too late that,

“Noble blood is of little help.
Deluded by passions, the best
of men turn wicked, and reap
the punishment of their karma…
My father was deep in dharma, his father was too,
But kama was his ruin, he died
while still a youth.
And in the field of his lust
I was sown…
And I am a victim of the hunt!
My mind is full of killing,” — I.119.2-5

The tragedy of the diabolic fascination Limerence exercises is precisely what Shakespeare put so memorably:

“All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.”

The misery — it is no longer tragedy on a heroic scale — of the Kuru kings Shantanu, Vichitravirya and Pandu is that of all men, whether prince or pauper.

Pandu himself, despite his desperate resolve to seek moksha by renouncing all pleasures, is overtaken by his karma. Clotho spins the thread of life; Lachesis measures it out and Atropos decides Limerence will cut it:

“passion overpowered him,
it seemed that he wanted
to commit suicide, as it were.
First he lost his senses,
then, clouded by lust,
he sought the loss of his life.
Kala-dharma ordained it…
Perished in the act of intercourse” — I.125.12-14

He falls victim to mort d’amour while raping Madri who “fought against him fiercely” (125.10).

Of these generations of Kauravas we can say with Milton,

“…they, fondly thinking to allay
Their appetite with gust, instead of fruit
Chewed bitter ashes.” — Paradise Lost, X.564-566

When Karna shouts in the dice-game hall about Draupadi,

“The gods have ordained one husband only
for a woman; she has many;
that’s proof enough she’s a harlot…
…strip her naked.” — II.68.37, 40

And when, encouraging Karna, Duryodhana lewdly bares his left thigh to Draupadi (II.71.11-13) it is lust that becomes Ananke. The retribution is terrifying: of eighteen armies only ten men survive.

Draupadi is the mysterious femme fatale in the Adi Parva (I.196), weeping tears that turn into golden lotuses in the Ganga, who leads the infatuated Indra away from Yama’s yajna into the presence of Shiva playing dice with his consort. His discrimination overcast by Limerence, Indra does not recognise Shiva, arrogantly berates him and is imprisoned in a cave with four earlier lustful, arrogant Indras (Vishvabhuk, Bhutadhama, Shibi, Shanti and Tejasvi). All are sentenced to earthly life as the Pandavas accompanied by the cherchez la femme Shri who becomes Draupadi. Limerence has determined their destiny.

Draupadi, in particular, is a locus of Limerence. She is the only woman to be described in some physical detail in the epic as she emerges gratuitously from the yajna-altar, full-grown:

“eye-ravishing Panchali,
Dark-skinned Panchali,
Lotus-eyed lady,
Wavy-haired Panchali,
Hair like dark-blue clouds,
Shining coppery carved nails,
Soft eyelashes,
Swelling breasts
Shapely thighs…
… Blue lotus
Fragrance for a full krosha
Flowed from her body.” — I.169.44-46

A skyey announcement proclaims her as the cause of the destruction of the Kshatriyas and the terror of the Kauravas (I.169.49).

The second occasion is when Yudhishthira describes her before staking her in the gambling match:-

“…neither short nor tall,
neither dark nor pale,
who has wavy dark-blue hair,
Eyes like autumn lotus-leaves,
fragrant like the autumn lotus,
lovely like autumn itself,…
never offending anyone,
graceful and patient and gentle,
Gifted with all the gunas,
soft-spoken and sweet-speaking,
the ideal wife for the pursuit
of dharma, artha and kama.
She is the last to sleep,
The first to wake,
even earlier than the early-rising
cowherds and shepherds…
Her sweat-bathed face is lovely
Like the lotus, like the jasmine;
She is slim-waisted
Like the middle of the sacred vedi,
Long-haired, pink-lipped,
With not excessive body-hair…” — II.65.33-37

Jatasura, who abducts her, is warned by Yudhishthira,

“You will be like one who drinks poison
after shaking the vessel.” — III.157.27

Bhima voices the interlinking of Ananke, Kronos and Limerence:

“…today wonder-working Kala
Has possessed your mind
to ravish Krishna-Draupadi.
You have swallowed the bait
on Kala’s hook —
you are caught like a fish,
you will die like one.” — III.157.44-45

Like Helen of Troy, she is fully conscious of her sexual power but is never a slave of her libido. Satyabhama begs for the secrets of female sexuality by which she keeps her husbands at her beck and call (III.222.7), but finds she does not need any drugs or mantras to do so. We see telling examples of how she gets her way with Bhima in Virata’s kitchen (IV.20) and succeeds with Krishna in turning his peace-embassy into a declaration of war (V.82). [18] The captivating pose she strikes when alone in Kamyaka forest that so enchants Jayadratha is another instance. Leaning against a kadamba tree, holding 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 (III.264.1). Jayadratha craves her because,

“…women and jewels
are meant for frivolous enjoyment…
Jayadratha attempted
To remove her breast-garment…” — III.267.27; 268.24

She condemns him as a “lustful rascal” (III.271.45) whose libido only brings utter humiliation crashing down upon his head.

Next it is Kichaka for whom Draupadi becomes the limerent object:

“The fire of my passion consumes me
like a merciless forest-blaze;
all it desires is to be one with you,
O lovely one...
I am driven wild
By the arrows of Manmatha
and the hope of intercourse with you.” — IV.14.24,26


Limerence takes away even the basic instinct of self-preservation. Kichaka was

“Lust-maddened, adulterous-minded
though aware of the consequences”. — IV.14.44

His sister Sudeshna’s warning falls on deaf ears:

“You have completely forgotten
what is good for you.
You have allowed yourself to become
a slave of kama.
Your end is near. That is why kama
grips you so strongly….”
The absolute fool had a single obsession:
intercourse with Draupadi.” —IV.15.17-18; 28

The end Ananke visits upon him is horrifying: Bhima pounds him into a shapeless lump of flesh.

Why should Draupadi be such a locus of Limerence? Clues are found in the kathas of her previous births. The Kumbakonam edition of the epic records that in an earlier birth as Nalayani-Indrasena (daughter of Nala and Damayanti?) [19] she was married to Maudgalya, an irascible, leprous sage. Her devotion to him was so absolute that even when his thumb dropped into their meal, she took it out and calmly ate the food without revulsion. Pleased by this, Maudgalya offered her a boon, and she asked him to make love to her in five lovely forms. He obliged, but as she was insatiable, he reverted to ascesis. When she remonstrated and insisted that he continue their love-making, he cursed her to be reborn and have five husbands to satisfy her sexual craving. Thereupon she practised severe penance and pleased Shiva who blessed her with five husbands and the boon of regaining virginity after being with each husband. [20] The Jaina Nayadhammakahao tells of suitorless Sukumarika reborn first as a celestial courtesan because of her sexual craving and then as Draupadi. [21] In the Brahmavaivarta Purana< [22] we find that she was the reincarnation of the shadow-Sita who, in turn, was Vedavati reborn after being molested by Ravana. This Chaya-Sita became the Lakshmi of the fourteen Mahendras in Svarga, five of whom incarnated as the Pandavas. After the fire ordeal, the lovely and youthful shadow-Sita was advised by Rama and Agni to worship Shiva. While doing so, kamatura pativyagra prarthayanti punah punah (tormented by sexual desire and eager for a husband), she prayed again and again, asking the three-eyed god five times for a husband (14.57). In each of her many origins, therefore, Draupadi’s nature is characterised by high libido.

However, as with the previous generations of the lunar dynasts, no lesson has been learnt about the deadly coils Limerence winds about its victims while immobilising them with its basilisk stare. Even Krishna, the Purushottama, cannot save his kith and kin from self-sought annihilation. Thirty-six years after the Kurukshetra holocaust, the Yadavas, Bhojas, Kukuras, Vrishnis and Andhakas (all descendants of that archetype of pride and lust, Yayati and his lustful queen Devayani) rush like mindless lemmings into mass suicide. The extreme penalty Krishna and Balarama impose to prohibit manufacture of liquor (impalement of the violator and his entire family) fails. In their very presence at Prabhasa the clans plunge into a drunken orgy. The cardinal flaw in the character of the Vrishnis, as with Yayati, is arrogance which blinds discrimination-

“They mocked Brahmins
and pitris and gods.
They insulted gurus and elders…
Pouring wine in the food
prepared for mahatma Brahmins,
the Yadavas fed the wine-flavoured dishes
to vanara-monkeys.” — XVI.2.10; 3.14

With arrogance and drunkenness went lust hand in hand:-

“Wives cheated on husbands,
and husbands
cheated on wives.” — XVI.2.11

To this deadly combination was added the explosive spark of anger as Satyabhama, learning who had killed her father,

“burst into angry tears.

She sat in Keshava-Krishna’s lap,

and instigated Janardana-Krishna.” —XVI.3.24

As Krishna glanced angrily at Kritavarma, the murderer of his wife’s father, Satyaki lopped off his head. The carnage exploded:

“Demented with drink,
the warriors butchered one another…
falling like fleas in a flame.
Not one of them had the good sense
to flee the carnage.” — XVI.3.42-43

The roots of man’s doom are revealed in the parable Vidura narrates to solace-seeking Dhritarashtra in the Stri Parva which travelled to the West to feature as the story of “The Man in the Well” in the tale of Barlaam and Josaphat: [23]

“Take a certain Brahmin who loses himself in a dense jungle filled with wild beasts. Lions and tigers, elephants and bears…Yelling and trumpeting and roaring…a dismal scene to frighten even the god of death, Yama. The Brahmin is terror-stricken. He horripilates. His mind is a bundle of fears. He begins to run, helter-skelter; he looks right and left, hoping to find someone who will save him. But the fierce beasts—they are everywhere—the jungle echoes with their weird roaring—wherever he goes, they are there, ahead of him.

“Suddenly he notices that the fearful forest is swathed in a massive net. In front of him, with open arms, is a horrendous-looking female. Also, five-headed snakes hiss at him—tall snakes, their hill-huge bodies slithering up to the sky.

“In the middle of the forest is a well-covered with grass and intertwining creepers. He falls in that well and dangles there, clutched by a creeper, like a jackfruit ripe for plucking. He hangs there, feet up, head down.

“Horror upon horror! In the bottom of the well he sees a monstrous snake. On the edge of the well is a huge black elephant with six heads and twelve feet hovering at the well’s mouth. And, buzzing in and out of the clutch of creepers, are giant, repulsive bees surrounding a honeycomb. They are trying to sip the deliciously sweet honey, the honey all creatures love, the honey whose real taste only children know.

“The honey drips out of the comb, and the honey drops fall on the hanging Brahmin’s tongue. Helpless he dangles, relishing the honey drops. The more the drops fall, the greater his pleasure. But his thirst is not quenched. More! Still more! ‘I am alive!’ he says, ‘I am enjoying life!’

“Even as he says this, black and white rats are gnawing the roots of the creeper. Fears encircle him. Fear of the carnivores, fear of the fierce female, fear of the monstrous snake, fear of the giant elephant, fear of the rat-devoured creeper about to snap, fear of the large buzzing bees…In that flux and flow of fear he dangles, hanging on to hope, craving the honey, surviving in the jungle of samsara.

“The jungle is the universe; the dark area around the well is an individual life span. The wild beasts are diseases. The fierce female is decay. The well is the material world. The huge snake at the bottom of the well is Kala, all-consuming time, the ultimate and unquestioned annihilator. The clutch of the creeper from which the man dangles is the self-preserving life-instinct found in all creatures. The six-headed elephant trampling the tree at the well’s mouth is the Year—six faces, six seasons; twelve feet, twelve months. The rats nibbling at the creeper are day and night gnawing at the life span of all creatures. The bees are desires. The drops of honey are pleasures that come from desires indulged. They are the rasa of Kama, the juice of the senses in which all men drown.” [24]

Dhritarashtra, of course, misses the point Vidura is making: man, literally hanging on to life by a thread and enveloped in multitudinous fears, is yet engrossed in the drops of the honey of the senses, exclaiming, “More! Still more! I am alive! I am enjoying life!” And, like the blind king, we tend to miss the point too. Ignoring the law of karma, taking that other road, we fall into the pit and rale; yet inveterately, compulsively, perversely, strain every sinew to lick the honey of Limerence. The Buddha figured it forth in a characteristically pungent image:

“Craving is like a creeper,
it strangles the fool.
He bounds like a monkey, from one birth to another,

looking for fruit.” [25]

In a marvellously eidetic image Vyasa portrays the secret:

“A wondrous kamavriksha grows in the heart,
a tree of desire, born of attachment.
Anger and arrogance its trunk,
impulse to act its irrigating channel.
Ignorance its root; negligence nourishes it.
fault-finding its leaves, past misdeeds its pith.
Grief, worry and delusion its branches,
fear its seed.
Vines of craving clasp it around
creating delusion.
All around this fruit-giving mighty tree of desire
sit greedy men,
shackled in iron chains of desire,
craving its fruit.
He who snaps these bonds of desire
slices this tree
with the sword of non-attachment.
He transcends grief-giving age and death.
But the fool who climbs this tree
greedy for fruit,
it destroys him;
even as poison pills destroy the sick.
The roots of this tree reach far and wide.
Only the wise can hew it down
with the yoga-gifted
sword of equanimity.
One who knows
how to rein in desires,
and knows study of desire itself binds,
he transcends all sorrow.” — Shanti Parva 255. 1-8 (my transcreation) [26]

In an analogous image, the cosmic fig tree itself is figured forth by Krishna in the Gita (15.1-3) along with the remedy:

“Mention is made of an eternal ashvattha
whose roots are above, whose branches are below
whose leaves are said to be the Vedas.
The knower of this tree
is the knower of the Vedas.
Its branches reach out below and above,
nourished by the gunas.
Its flowers are sense-pleasures.
Below the tree in the human world
flourish more roots
binding man to karma.
You may not see its real shape,
nor its end, birth and presence.
Slice this firm-rooted ashvattha
with the sharp sword of non-attachment.”

Despite this, Bhishma’s lengthy discourse on Dharma and Krishna’s Anugita what does the creator of this greatest of epics cry out at the very end?

"I raise my hands and I shout
but no one listens!
From Dharma come Artha and Kama--
Why is Dharma not practised?" — Svargaroha?a Parva, 62

A question that does indeed tease us out of thought into eternity. But, is anybody listening? Is there anybody there? Or, are we a host of phantom listeners, kin to the decimated Kurus, who listen but do not answer Draupadi’s question in the dyuta-sabha?


  1. * Published in the International Journal of Cultural Studies and Social Sciences, Vol. IX, No. XII. Sanskrit words occurring in the OED have not been italicized.
  2. "Allotted Portions". The three females were Clotho "the Spinner," who spun the thread of life, Lachesis "the Apportioner of Lots", who measured it, and Atropos (or Aisa) "Who cannot be turned," who cut it short.
  3. http://www.300.years.spb.ru/eng/3_spb_3.html?id=5
  4. P.Lal, Preface to The Complete Adi Parva, Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 2005, p.6. All extracts from the Mahabharata are from the P. Lal transcreation unless indicated otherwise.
  5. cf. George Meredith’s “Modern Love”.
  6. Coined by Dorothy Tennov in 1977: an obsessive need to have one's romantic feelings and sexual attraction for another reciprocated, the state of being completely carried away by unreasoned passion or love, even to the point of addictive-type behaviour. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limerence#Limerent_reaction
  7. P. Lal, The Complete Adi Parva, Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 2005.
  8. The medical term is “trimethylaminuria”, a syndrome associated with psychosocial reactions including social isolation.
  9. Wendy Doniger, The Hindus, Penguin Books, India, 2009, p. 295, which I have amplified.
  10. Adi Parva 104.9-15. Mamata’s son is the blind Dirghatamas, ostracised for publicly following the practices of the cow-race, i.e. indiscriminate sexual intercourse. He makes a living out of insemination. He looks forward to sightless Dhritarashtra, father of a hundred and one sons.
  11. Indra himself suffers serious consequences after his adulterous union with Ahalya (losing his testicles and being covered with marks of the vulva). His attempt at another liaison with Ruchi, wife of the sage Devasharma, is foiled by the disciple Vipula.This is where Indra’s “fate” differs markedly from that of the Greek Zeus and the Norse Odin who are also lusty kings of the gods but do not suffer for their adultery unlike the tragic Norse hero Siegmund and the Greek Paris.
  12. T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” in Four Quartets http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?oldid=435714070
  13. Ramayana 2.47.8-10, Wendy Doniger, The Hindus, Penguin, New Delhi, 2009, p.225.
  14. Doniger op.cit. p. 320-321. Laws of Manu Book 7 states: “[47] Hunting, gambling, sleeping by day, malicious gossip, women, drunkenness, music, singing, dancing, and aimless wandering are the group of ten (vices) born of desire. [48] Slander, physical violence, malice, envy, resentment, destruction of property, verbal abuse, and assault are the group of eight (vices) born of anger.” Vikarna addressing the Kauravas in the Sabha Parva says, “Kings have four major vices — hunting, drinking, gambling and womanizing.” (II.68.20) (personal communication from Doniger)
  15. Kalika Purana, 49.67, Nababharat Publishers, Calcutta, 1384 BS, p.462, my translation.
  16. Kalidasa paints a detailed portrait of this voluptuary ruler, the last of the dynasty of Raghu: “it was the disease resulting from sexual excess which consumed him…paying no heed to the doctors’ advice, he did not give it up.” The Dynasty of Raghu, XIX.48-49, translated by R. Antoine, Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 1972, p.216.
  17. Saudasa Kalmashpada who killed a copulating hermit was cursed similarly by his wife — coitus interruptus with a vengeance!
  18. P. Bhattacharya, Pancha-kanya, Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 2005, pp. 73, 77-78.
  19. In the Rig Veda X.10.2 there is an Indrasena-Mudgalani, a heroic lady who bravely drives her chariot and helps her husband to win numerous cattle (cf. H.C.Chakladar, “Some Aspects of Social Life in Ancient India”, The Cultural Heritage of India, vol.2, 1962, 2nd ed., Kolkata.
  20. Satya Chaitanya’s translation of the Kumbakonam edition of the Mahabharata, Adi Parva, sections 212-213 http://vyasabharata.blogspot.com/2010/12/nalayani-past-life-of-draupadi.html . Vettam Mani, Puranic Encyclopaedia (Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1975, p. 549) and M.V. Subramaniam, The Mahabharata Story: Vyasa & Variations (Higginbothams, Madras, 1967, pp. 46-47) mention this story without providing the source.
  21. B.N. Sumitra Bai, “The Jaina Mahabharata” in Essays on the Mahabharata ed. A. Sharma, Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1991, p.253.
  22. Prakriti khanda, 14.54 and Krishna Janma khanda 116.22-23.
  23. The Golden Legend, http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/golden329.htm
  24. P. Lal: The Mahabharata (condensed & transcreated) Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi, 1980, p. 286-7.
  25. P. Lal: The Dhammapada, op.cit. Farrar Straus & Giroux, New York, 1967, p.157
  26. Conflating the P. Lal transcreation, Writers Workshop, Calcutta, 1969 and P.Lal, The Complete Bhishma Parva, Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 2006, p.261.


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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