Sep 25, 2023
Sep 25, 2023
Women: the true leaders
Among the women, Satyavati virtually takes Hastinapura by storm and ensures that it is her blood which runs through its rulers. She is the cause of Devavrata turning into Bhishma, and she fulfils her foster-father’s – and doubtless her own – desire of having her progeny on the throne in a way that Shantanu had never dreamt of while agreeing with indecent alacrity to meet her father’s conditions for the marriage. By having her illegitimate son Vyasa father children on the widows of her son, she has descendants who carry in them nothing of Shantanu’s royal blood at all. She is the unquestioned authority in Hastinapura and has, in common with her grand daughter-in-law Kunti, an eldest son born out of wedlock. Unlike Kunti, however, Satyavati is not ashamed to own her unmarried motherhood before society, for that is the advantage of belonging to a low caste and not having to keep up appearances. As an adopted daughter, any exposure of misdemeanour would bring opprobrium on the Shurasenas, as Kuntibhoja makes amply clear while warning Pritha (significantly, he calls her by her original name) to please Durvasa punctiliously. After Pandu’s death, Satyavati gracefully retires to the forest, unlike the obsessed Bhishma, accepting Vyasa’s advice not to be a witness to the suicide of her race. In successfully using the power of her sexuality to ensure she gets what she wants Satyavati reminds us of the earliest queens of the Chandravamsha: Devayani and Sharmishtha. She is also like Shakuntala not only in having an apsara as her mother, but particularly in insisting, before giving in to the amorous advances of the infatuated king of Hastinapura, that her son alone must inherit the throne. It is she who is responsible for the chronicle of the Dynasty of Puru becoming the biography of the descendants of the dark fisher-girl Kali through her dark and ill-favoured illegitimate son fathered by a sage. Thereby, she is a revolutionary figure who upsets the entire mystique of royalty. Through Satyavati it is a parvenu dynasty that takes over the ancient seat of the Chandravansha. The Shudra Nandas of Pataliputra are not the first low caste dynasty to rule. To Satyavati must go the credit of founding the first mixed caste dynasty and that too of such importance as to have the greatest of epics written about it.
Satyavati’s granddaughter-in-law Pritha-Kunti is the epic’s most remarkable study in leadership and the use of power. Given away in childhood by her father Shura to Kuntibhoja, she is, as a nubile girl, placed by her adoptive father at the sole disposal of the eccentric Durvasa whose behaviour is quite objectionable. Before leaving, he gifts her an incantation that can summon any god to her bed. The adolescent Kunti is curious to test the potency of the mantra and impulsively intones it gazing at the resplendent rising sun. The Sun God arrives and refuses to leave without enjoying her. Like her future grandmother-in-law Satyavati, Kunti displays remarkable presence of mind in obtaining two similar boons from the importunate deity: her virginity will remain unimpaired and the son will resemble his father in glory. To protect family honour, she sets her “sun” child adrift in the river Ashva. Later, in her svayamvara she chooses Pandu of Hastinapura, only to find Bhishma snatching her happiness away by marrying him off to the more attractive Madri. She insists on accompanying her husband into exile and then faces a situation that is horripilating: her husband commands her to beget son after son by others. It is in this husband-wife encounter that Kunti’s individuality shines out. In response to Pandu’s request to beget children by soliciting a worthy person, Kunti first primly refuses:
“Not even in touch will I be embraced by another.”
Though she has already given birth to Karna, it evidence of her firm resolve to preserve an unsullied reputation after marriage, because of which she does not follow the example of her grandmother-in-law in acknowledging her pre-marital son. Despite the inexplicable exile of Pandu—and possibly because of its peculiar unexplained nature—Kunti would have had expectations of rehabilitation. With that in view, she would be particular not to do anything which might create problems in the hoped-for return to Hastinapura. That would also explain why she does not tell Pandu about Karna despite his frantic desire for progeny. Children born with the sanction of her husband would be a completely different proposition from a pre-marital son born to an unmarried princess.
Pandu, refusing to invite death-in-intercourse with Kunti (ironically, that is precisely what he does with Madri) urges that she will only be doing what is sanctioned by the Northern Kurus, as the new custom of sticking to one man is very recent and that there are the precedents of Sharadandayani, Madayanti, Ambika, Ambalika and the scriptural directive of Shvetaketu (he could have added his ancestress Madhavi, daughter of Yayati). None of these commands cut any ice with Kunti, whose character is far stronger than her husband’s. She gives in only when Pandu abjectly begs her:-
I fold my palms
joining the tips
of my lotus-leaf fingers
and I implore you in anjali—
listen to me!
Be gracious to me!
Look at the sheer grace and power of her answer:
O excellent Bharata! Great adharma
it is for a wife to be
repeatedly asked a favour; shouldn’t a wife
anticipate her husband’s wishes? 
With delightful one-upwomanship, she reveals that where he had wanted her to summon some eminent Brahmin, she has the power to call any god to her bed. Like her grandmother-in-law revealing her final weapon, Vyasa, to Bhishma only in the last extremity, Kunti shares the secret of her mantra only after bringing her husband literally to his knees. Thereafter, too, Kunti has the last word where Pandu’s desires are concerned. After obtaining three sons, when the greedy Pandu (very much like his grandmother Satyavati) urges Kunti to have more, she bluntly refuses to abuse that rare power for self-indulgence and quotes the scriptures back to him (as he had quoted Shvetaketu to her):
The wise do not sanction
a fourth conception, even in crisis.
The woman who has intercourse
for a fourth is a loose woman;
the woman who has intercourse
for a fifth is a prostitute.
Although her ready knowledge of the scriptures is admirable, her words are also tragically ironic, for she actually has had relations with four different men [that word is a give-away for if she had been summoning only gods, this prohibition ought not to have been invoked by her, and Pandu surely would have seized upon that flaw to command her to gratify his hunger for more sons]. Even more tragic is the last statement, for that is precisely the fate into which she thrusts her daughter-in-law Draupadi. And in the dice-game it is Karna, her first-born, who, on the basis of this same scriptural pronouncement, declares Draupadi a whore. In that horripilating scene we cannot but agree with Naomi Wolf’s condemnation of masculine culture’s efforts to “punish the slut”, the sexually adventurous woman who crosses the ambiguous lines separating “good” from “bad”.
Kunti’s inflexible determination is again revealed when she flatly refuses Pandu’s request to help Madri in having more children. Despite his bravado before Madri [‘I know that if I ask Kunti/she will not refuse me”], Pandu slinks away before Kunti’s fury:-
“She deceived me”, said Kunti.
“With one mantra I gave her,
she managed to get two sons.
I am afraid she will get
more sons than I. Scheming woman!
What a fool I was!...
Don’t come to me again, my lord,
saying ‘Grant her a favour.’”
The motivation, of course, is to ensure that she is not outdone, because in sexual one-upwomanship Madri consistently has the better of Kunti who admits this:-
Princess of Bahlika!
You are fortunate indeed –
you had the chance to see
his face radiant in intercourse.41]
Even in death, Madri accompanies her husband. Her tribute to Kunti brings out the nobility of character which makes her into a leader of men. “Could I bring up your children/as if they were mine?” Madri asks, unable to rise above the ego’s petty jealousies. Madri continues:
You are blessed. There is none, O Vrishni lady,
Devi, you are my light,
my guide, most puja-worthy,
Superior in status, purer in virtue.
How true this description is of Kunti! A superb instance of the sublimation of the libido into a single-minded determination to win back her sons’ rights, she brings up five children in a hostile court, bereft of relatives and allies. We see no signs of either Kuntibhoja or the Shurasenis coming forward to give her shelter or support. Once Bhishma has provided her with a roof over her head, it is solely Kunti who guards her children. The insecurity is of such dimensions that she dare not inform Bhishma of the attempt to poison Bhima. It is she who gets the Nishada woman and her five sons drunk in the House of Lac so that no evidence is left of the Pandavas’ escape when it is gutted. The comment of Professor P.Lal, the epic’s eminent transcreator, is worth noting in this respect: “Instigating Macbeth-Bhima was Kunti, bringer-forth of men-children only.” With unerring instinct she is able to rally the drooping spirits of her sons, repeatedly exclaiming:
I am Kunti, mother
of five Pandavas, and I thirst
for water sitting in their midst!
Again, where Yudhishthira stops short with preventing Bhima from slaying the infatuated Hidimba, Kunti with remarkable foresight seizes on this fortuitous occurrence to cement an alliance for the friendless five:
I can see no way
of taking fit revenge
for the terrible injustices
that Duryodhana has done us.
A grave problem of dharma faces us…
you know Hidimba loves you...
Have a son by her. It is dharma.
I wish it. He will work
for our welfare. My son,
I do not want a no
from you. I want your promise
now, in front of both of us. 
We know how useful the fruit of this union, Ghatotkacha, was for them subsequently during their exile and as the saviour of Arjuna from Karna’s infallible weapon in the war at the cost of his own life. It is again Kunti who instructs her first grandchild so as to ensure his loyalty:
You are one of us Kauravas
To me you are like Bhima himself
You are the eldest son of the five Pandavas
Therefore, you should help them.
Thus, the Pandava dynasty is slowly but surely structured into an entity with multi-racial affinities. Earlier we have seen how, because of Kunti, Bhima is befriended by the Naga Aryaka who is her father’s maternal grandfather. Here an alliance with the forest-dwelling Rakshasas is established. Later, Arjuna will forge other alliances with the Nagas, Manipur and Dvaraka.
It is profoundly instructive to study how Kunti educates her sons in the proper use of power. Her abiding concern for the welfare of the common man, which she inculcates into them, is brought out tellingly in the Ekachakra episode where she comes forward, over-ruling Yudhishthira’s frantic remonstrances, to depute Bhima to meet the ogre Baka in place of the Brahmana who has given them shelter. It is necessary to note this exchange between son and mother, in which Kunti, as earlier with Pandu, emerges totally victorious. Yudhishthira says pretty harshly,
The man who gives us
confidence that one day we will rule
the world’s wealth
after killing the sons of Dhritarashtra--
What right had you
to expose him like this?
Have you lost your reason?
Have our sufferings unbalanced you? 
Never again will Yudhishthira upbraid his mother in such strong terms. The only other instance occurs after the war when he gets to know that Karna was his elder brother. It only shows the inability of the young man to appreciate the profound wisdom and practical sense underlying this apparently rash decision fraught with life-risk to their sole protector. After pointing out that they ought to repay the kindness of the Brahmana for “He indeed is a man whose gratitude/exceeds the favour he receives,” she reminds Yudhishthira of Bhima’s superhuman strength, and then teaches him a lesson in kingship:
It’s a king’s duty to protect
even the Shudra if the Shudra
As we have seen, it is in failing to protect that Bhishma’s greatest failing lay as a Kshatriya. Kunti then pulls up her son masterfully:
No, I have not lost my head.
I know what I am doing…
not foolish; don’t think me ignorant;
I’m not being selfish.
I know exactly what I am doing.
This is an act of dharma. 
She explains the reasons for taking the decision:
Yudhishthira, two benefits
will follow from this act--
one, we’ll repay a Brahmin,
two, we will gain maha-dharma…
a Kshatriya who helps a Brahmin
gets the highest heaven
in his after-life. 
Kunti’s maturity, the ability to observe life closely and use the learning from experience for arriving at swift decisions to benefit simultaneously both society and her children, set her apart from all other persons in the epic save Krishna.
After staying with a poor Brahmana in Ekachakra, Kunti now puts up in a potter’s house in Panchala, further down in the caste hierarchy. The point to note is how she is bringing up her children virtually from the lowest level of society to the status of rulers. In that process, she turns necessity to glorious gain. For, the enforced exile brings her sons into close contact with the common people, so that they develop that feeling for the felt needs of the vast majority which equips them for ruling over them as true rajas, those who discharge the duty of pleasing their subjects, and share in the merit accrued thus.
Kunti’s intention is to obtain the daughter of Drupada as daughter-in-law and thus gain the alliance of the traditional enemy of the Kauravas, so that a firm foundation can be established for the plan to win back her sons’ birthright. Her keen farsight has intuited the ruination attendant on any splitting up of the united five. Hence she plays that grim charade of pretending not to know what Bhima and Arjuna are referring to when they ask her to see what they have brought home. For, in 190.29 we find Yudhishthira and the two Madreyas have ‘slipped out of the enclosure” the moment the skirmish started over Arjuna winning Draupadi. These three are already back when Draupadi is brought home by the other two. Moreover, their very coming to Panchala was with the aim of jointly winning Draupadi, as advised by Vyasa in Ekachakra. Kunti is fully in the know of Arjuna having won Draupadi, but she also knows that so long their lives have revolved only around her. She can be replaced only by a single woman, not five, if their unity is to remain intact. That is why she deliberately asks that whatever has been brought should be shared out and enjoyed as usual. After “discovering” her “mistake”, her only worry is that something must be done so that her spoken command does not become untrue.  Yudhishthira’s speech to Drupada makes it amply clear that the decision is actually Kunti’s although the brothers are eagerly acquiescing [“Each had her in his heart”] . It is also a magnificent tribute to the total respect and implicit obedience paid by them to Kunti, which is unexampled in the epic. Despite all the paeans to Gandhari’s virtues as a wife, her complete failure as a mother to command any respect from Duryodhana (he does not hesitate to insult her by stalking out of the court in anger when she admonishes him) only serves to highlight the qualities which make Kunti pre-eminent among all women in Mahabharata and indeed among almost all the leading characters:
“My mother’s will is my will
Because I know she is right….
Isn’t it said that obedience to gurus
is the greatest dharma?
What greater guru than one’s mother?
Our mother’s clear command was
“Share and equally enjoy
what you have.” Best of dvijas!
To me this is the highest dharma. 
It is instructive to see how keen Kunti is that her stratagem should not be foiled . She immediately appeals to Vyasa as Yudhishthira finishes speaking:-
What dharma-firm Yudhishthira says
is right. I fear my words will
will become as pointless as lies.
And if that happens,
will I not be tainted with untruth? 
As usual, Kunti ensures that she has her way, this time with the help of Vyasa, her actual her father-in-law. Kunti’s ambition for her children is finally voiced openly when she formally blesses Draupadi after the marriage ceremonies:
May you be queen
of the kingdom of Kurujangala
with your husband
in the capital of Kurujangala. 
Simultaneously, Kunti’s nephew Krishna, son of her brother Vasudeva, comes forward with Yadava wealth to build up the power of the Pandavas. It is when she returns to Hastinapura with her newly-found Panchala and Yadava allies that, suddenly and for the only time, Vyasa shows us a soft side of Kunti that is most revelatory:
Seeing her younger brother-in-law,
Kunti burst into tears.
She said, “Son of Vichitravirya,
by your grace area still living…
you have saved them, dear one…
I have looked
After your sons through many difficulties”…
She broke down and sobbed uncontrollably. 
The truly powerful do not cling to power. They know when and how to wield it but also, even more important, when not to use it. Kunti is no queen mother glorying in her new royalty and ordering her daughter-in-law about. Hereafter she retreats into the background, silently giving up pride of place to Draupadi. But opportunely thrice she comes forward using the power that is coiled up within her most effectively for the benefit of her sons. When her sons are exiled, she decided to stay back in Hastinapura as a silent but constant reminder to the Kauravas of the violated rights of the Pandavas. She will not allow Dhritarashtra to forget conveniently what is due to his nephews just because they are in exile. Then, when Krishna comes with the peace mission to Hastinapura, she tells him to urge Yudhishthira to fight for their rights as Kshatriyas must. She compares his obsession with peace to those who, not understanding the true sense, of the Vedas ruin their intelligence by immersing it in rituals. To inspire him, she repeats a tactic used in the Varanavata exile:
Can anything be more humiliating
than that your mother,
friendless and alone, should have to depend
on others for food ?
Follow the dharma of rajas,
redeem your family honour.
Do not, with your brothers,
watch your merits waste away. 
To inspire him further, she bids Krishna repeat to Yudhishthira the thrilling exhortation of Vidula to her son Sanjaya who is reluctant to face battle with the king of Sindhu who has already defeated him once:
Flare up, even if briefly,
Do not futilely smoulder away
in billowing fireless smoke. 
To these twin spurs to prick them on, Kunti now adds the culminating motivating factor: the insult to her daughter-in-law, and upbraids her sons in no uncertain terms in order to arouse their manhood which has gone into hibernation:
The princess of Panchala followed all dharmas,
yet in your presence they mocked her—
how can all of you
forgive this outrage?
The kingdom lost did not hurt me,
the defeat at dice
did not hurt me; the exile of my sons
did not hurt me
So much as weeping of ample-figured,
dark-skinned Draupadi in the sabha
as they molested her. Nothing more painful
than that maha-insult.
A lady who followed a wife’s dharma,
a lovely-hipped lady of Kshatriya-dharma—
yet not one husband rose to protect Krishna-Draupadi,
this many-husbanded-yet-husbandless lady of purity. 
The other instance of her outstanding leadership is the last act to secure the safety of her beloved sons. Once again it is a conscious decision not to take the easy way out like Madri had done, but to undergo the traumatic experience of acknowledging to her first-born the truth about his birth, kept secret so long as her greatest shame. Karna rejects her, but in having apparently failed, Kunti turns her loss to glorious gain, obtaining his promise that he will not kill any of them except Arjuna. Moreover, she effectively weakens him from within. For, while he knows that he is battling his mother’s sons, Arjuna only knows that this is the detestable charioteer’s son who must be slain for his crimes against Draupadi and Abhimanyu.
Kunti’s actions are, indeed, quite unconventional and wholly autonomous starting with her first pregnancy. It is only she who agrees to shoulder the awesome burden of bringing up five teenagers in a hostile court, without resources but for the tacit support of Vidura, dependent on the tender mercies of Dhritarashtra and the indecisive ruminations of Bhishma on dharma’s subtleties. Up to their marriage, it is overwhelmingly Kunti’s story: the story of her masterly guidance at every step to gather allies around her sons till they are able to claim their inheritance. And yet, her guiding touch is ever unobtrusive, yet firm and unmistakable.
Kunti has that rare capacity to surprise us which characterises great leaders who know how to use power. When everything that she worked for has been achieved—the war is over, her beloved sons are the rulers of Hastinapura and her daughter-in-law has been avenged-she astonishes them all by resolving to retire to the forest with, of all persons, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari to spend her life in ascesis and in serving the old couple responsible for her sufferings! Her reply to Bhima’s anguished query as to why she urged them to wade into this river of blood if she was going to leave them is a revealing insight into the remarkable nature of this greatest of Vyasa’s heroines. Kunti says that she had inspired them to fight so that they did not suffer oppression at their relative’s hands. But, having glutted herself with happiness during her husband’s rule—itself is an ironic statement in view of Pandu’s rule exceptionally abbreviated tenure as king—she has no desire to enjoy a kingdom won by her sons. Neither the tears of her sons, nor the entreaties of Dhritarashtra succeed in changing her mind. Gifted away as a child by her father like a piece of property, in adolescence callously placed by her foster father at the mercy of an eccentric sage, her curiosity making her the victim of a god’s lust, choosing as husband one who never consummated the marriage and made her beget children from others thrice over, never the recipient of any assistance from her father or foster-father when in exile, her end, as that of Bhishma, symbolises the angst that consumed her. Kunti chooses to die engulfed in a forest-fire.
What is the secret of this remarkable power that flows from within these women of Vyasa? It is a state of virginity. Even more than Satyavati, Kunti is a "virgin" in the Jungian sense. In return for allowing Parashara to enjoy her, Satyavati had obtained boons of remaining youthful and fragrant forever and of regaining her virginity after the birth of Vyasa. In that encounter we find a superb instance of the use of her sexual power by an adolescent fisher-girl of outstanding intelligence. Kunti, too, obtains the identical blessing from Surya. This state of “virginity” is not merely a physical condition but refers to an inner state of the psyche which remains untrammelled by any slavish dependence on a particular man. Madri presents the exact opposite concept of the “married” woman who is dependent on what others think, and therefore she does what she may not actually approve of. “She is not one-in-herself but acts as female counterpart or syzygy to some male.” On the other hand, “The woman who is psychologically virgin is not dependent in this way. She is what she is because that is what she is.” This “virgin” is “one-in-herself (and) does what she does not because of any desire to please, not to be liked, or to be approved, even by herself,.. but because what she does is true. Her actions may, indeed be unconventional.” In the ultimate analysis, “all power is really soul-power”, writes Sri Aurobindo, “for all material energy contains hidden the vital, mental, psychic, spiritual energy and in the end it must release these forms of the one Shakti, the vital energy.’’ How truly Kunti exemplifies this in all the crucial decisions concerning her sons, and in the ultimate choice of her life’s ending!
The last of this unique trio of “virgins” is Draupadi, adept in the chandrayana vrata, whereby she is able to regain her virginity before changing each husband as Narada specifically mentions while describing the multiple weddings. She replaces Kunti as the nave of the Pandava-wheel, and also acts as the axle for the Panchala-Pandava-Yadava chariot. Wholly unconventional in accepting the opprobrium, along with the staggering challenge, of having five husbands (her mother-in-law had only single encounters with Surya, Dharma, Vayu and Indra), her success is so complete that she is besought by the intrigued Satyabhama to share the secret of her success. Right from her birth from the sacrificial flames, Vyasa gives us a vivid picture of this extraordinary dark beauty who is the instrument of Drupada’s vengeance on the Kauravas. If she shares with her mother-in-law the fact of having “known” five men, then like her grandmother-in-law she is dark, endowed with enchanting bodily fragrance and stunningly lovely.
Draupadi shocks her contemporaries by daring to challenge the Kuru elders’ very concept of Dharma in a situation where any other woman would have collapsed in hysterics. None can answer her. Can we even imagine any woman who would suffer attempted in the forest and countenance her husband forgiving the abductor; this to be followed by public molestation in Virata’s court with her husband reprimanding her for making a scene; be carried off to be cremated with the dead Kichaka; and then, when all seems ready for war, to hear her husbands tell Krishna to sue for peace and still remain loyal to them, and sane! The worst is yet to come, with the decimation of all her sons by Ashvatthama. Ultimately Draupadi becomes queen, but what does she have left for herself, we wonder. And at the very end, when she stumbles and falls, dying, on the Himalayan ridges, not one of the five husbands tarries by her side. Not one even turns back with a word of comfort. Self-born of the sacrificial flames, Yajnaseni leaves the world all by herself, nathavati anathavat, five-husbanded yet without a husband.
It is then that we realise that this remarkable “virgin” never asked anything for herself. Virtually a kritya, an avenging fury, ritually invoked to sate Drupada’s desire for vengeance, everything she does is with single-minded determination to goad the Pandavas into destroying the Kauravas. By snubbing Karna publicly, flouting Dhrishtadyumna’s announcement that the successful marksman would win her hand, she turns the viryashulka contest where the strongest wins the bride into a svayamvara (bridegroom-choice ceremony). Simultaneously, her decisive intervention plants seeds of the assault on her in the Kaurava court where Karna takes his sweet revenge. Again, it is her mysterious silence when Yudhishthira announces the polyandrous decision which cements the brotherhood into an invincible fighting force.
Throughout the exile her bitter recriminations are aimed at ensuring that her husbands never forget that they have to avenge the gross insult she has suffered. That is indeed why she insists on accompanying them while their other wives stay back with the children. The climax of this is seen when she upbraids her intimate friend, sakha, Krishna in the Udyoga Parva on finding that her husbands (save Sahadeva) are all in favour of suing for peace. After pouring out her injuries, she takes up her serpent-like thick, glossy hair and with tearful eyes urges Krishna to recall these tresses when he sues for peace. Sobbing, she announces that her five sons led by Abhimanyu and her old father and brothers will take revenge if her husbands will not. Krishna’s response is precisely what she has been aiming for:
Consider those you disfavour
as already dead !..
The Himavant hills may move,
the earth shatter
in a hundred pieces, heaven collapse;
my promise stands...
You will see your enemies killed…” 
Who but Krishnaa can upbraid Krishna thus: “No husband have I, nor son, nor brother. So much so, O Madhusudana, that even you are not mine.” Who else can virtually lay down the law to Krishna, tell him that he is bound to protect her whenever necessary, and cite four reasons for this? 
caturbhih karanaih Krishna tvaya rakshyasmi nityashah /
sambandhad gauravat sakhyat prabhutvena ca Keshava //
[She is his paternal aunt’s daughter-in-law; she is renowned; he is her close friend;
all respect him as their superior. Hence she depends upon him most of all].
Krishna does not let her down.
Besides this, however, she uses the powers of her unrivalled charms and intellect to achieve her ends as no other epic character does. After Kichaka has kicked her in Virata’s court and Yudhishthira’s response has been to direct her not to make a scene, the manner in which she goes about taking revenge is an engrossing study of how a beautiful woman in adverse circumstances can turn her sexuality into an irresistibly powerful motivator. She does not approach Arjuna, knowing him since the dice-game to be a true disciple of Yudhishthira. Then Bhima alone had roared out his outrage. Now it is to him that she goes in the dark of the night and finds him asleep in the kitchen. Panchali presses intimately close to Bhima like a woman driven by sexual desire, as a wild she-crane snuggles up to its mate and a three-year old cow in season rubs against a bull. The important word here is “like”: she is not actually sexually stimulated but is feigning in order to manipulate Bhima. She twines herself round him as a creeper entwines a massive shala tree on the Gomati’s banks, as the bride of the sleeping king of beasts clasps him in a dense forest, as an elephant-cow embraces a huge tusker. As Bhima awakes in Panchali’s arms, she crowns it all by speaking in dulcet vina like tones pitched at the gandhara note, the third in the octave. Her long speech is a telling lesson in motivational strategy. To rouse his anger she narrates all her misfortunes, even how she, a princess, has now to carry water for the queen’s toilet, particularly mentioning how she swoons when he wrestles with wild beasts much to the amusement of the queen and her maids who gossip that she and the handsome cook must be lovers. Finally, in a marvellous feminine touch, she extends her palms to him, chapped with grinding unguents for the queen. His reaction is all that she had planned for so consummately:
Wolf-waisted foe-crushing Bhima
Covered his face
with the delicate, chapped hands of his wife,
and burst into tears.”
Kichaka’s death is sealed.
Beyond all this, however, Draupadi seems to have had a profound awareness that she was an instrument to achieve the annihilation of a dying era and an ancient dharma, so that a new age could take birth. And being so aware, she offered up her entire being, her whole life, as a flaming sacrifice in that holocaust of which Krishna was the presiding deity as well as the motive force and the major protagonist.
We have seen that those who are celebrated as flawless acmes of perfection to be looked up to as role models by society are actually flawed, human creatures obsessed with their individual egotistic needs and pre-occupations. Bhishma may superficially appear to be representing a sublime ideal of celibacy ad allegiance to the given word, but actually he is affecting an artificial witness stance out of a sense of deep hurt and deprivation, which goes against the very nature of the Kshatriya and results in the destruction of that same kingdom which he considers himself born to protect. Karna might appear to be nobility and generosity personified, but actually he is eating his heart out in envy and every act of his is triggered by a sense of deeply injured merit, a hyper-sensitivity about his low caste, which goes so far as to drive him to bid a princess to be stripped in public and to term her a prostitute. Krishna, the purushottama, is desperately lonely, friendless and the victim of those whom he has constantly gone out of his way to help.
On the other hand, it is the trio of heroines who usually escape our attention who turn out to be the real Grey Eminences. In them we find validation of Naomi Wolf’s celebration of women as “sexually, powerful magical beings.” The dynasty which Vyasa is concerned with most of all is created by Satyavati, a fisher-girl. One branch of it is re-created and carried forward by Kunti, quite on her own. The other branch is annihilated by Draupadi’s relentless quest for revenge. It is they who are the real leaders, the true wielders of power in its many forms—sexual, maternal and state—in this epic which is usually looked upon as a male-preserve and is, in some communities, banned reading for unmarried women.
A very different type of use of power is depicted in the lives of the sages. One type is represented in Vashishtha and the other in Vishvamitra while in Parashurama we have a third quite unique type. All the three sages are linked to the epic tale. Vishvamitra is the father of Shakuntala and thereby an ancestor of the Bharata dynasty. The very birth of Bhishma occurs because Vashishtha curses the Vasus for their theft of his cow. Parashurama is the guru of Bhishma in weapon-craft and also of Drona and Karna. The helpless condition of Karna before Arjuna is because of the curse of Parashurama.
Parashurama anticipates Krishna in the concept of a mission to root out the tyrannical, effete and decadent rulers of society. This, of course, is an integral component of the avatara’s personality. Parashurama belongs to a society where the Kshatriyas have degenerated into tyrants, who do not scruple to slay Brahmins in their search for hidden gold. The Haiheyas, descended through Yadu, launch a murderous assault on the Richika-Bhargavas, to the extent of destroying embryos, till the effulgence of Aurva stops them. Aurva undertakes terrifying austerities for annihilating all Kshatriyas, exclaiming,
The man with power to punish
who does not punish
who he knows deserves punishment
himself becomes guilty.
Many kings and nobles
could have saved my ancestors—
yet they did not—they chose
riskless luxury instead…
If I, who have power to punish,
do not now punish,
what is to prevent other men
from repeating the crime? 
Aurva is persuaded by the manes of ancestors to cast his fury into the sea. Thus both Kshatriyas and Brahmins seem to have come to an uneasy truce, with the Brahmin virtue of forgiveness having won the day.
This is, however, a temporary reprieve. The arrogant Karttavirya Arjuna destroys the hermitage of Aurva’s grandson Jamadagni and kills the sage, which leads to the declaration of an all-out war against them by Parashurama, in whom the fury of Aurva seems to have descended. This remains a unique event in Pauranik Bharata, in which a Brahmin takes to arms to end, once and for all, the oppression of those who are meant to protect society. At the end of twenty-one battles, society is left bereft of Kshatriya males. This awesome achievement of Parashurama earns him the sixth place in the pantheon of Vishnu’s incarnations. Parashurama performs the obsequies of his ancestors in five lakes of Kshatriya blood at samanta-panchaka (Kurukshetra), the site of the epic holocaust. The Kshatriya race is given a new lease of life through Brahmins impregnating the Kshatriya widows. In the process, the Kshatriyas have been taught a lesson, and the balance between the two superior castes has been restored.
That virtue of forgiveness which Aurva reluctantly reverts to, and which is foreign to Parashurama’s nature, is depicted at length as the pre-eminent quality holding society together in the life of Vashishtha and the story of Vishvamitra’s all-consuming jealousy of his greatness. Vishvamitra is that great seer of Rig Veda who discovered the Gayatri mantra. Vyasa shows him as a proud monarch who cannot accept being worsted by a mere forest-dwelling sage. No lessons have been learnt from the experiences of the power-drunk Haiheyas at the hands of Parashurama. It becomes his life’s mission to attain the same status as Vashishtha’s, that of a brahmarshi, the highest of the seers, and to put him down somehow. Ridden by that obsession, he turns the king of south Koshala, Mitrasaha-Kalmashapada into a cannibal, and has him destroy all the sons of Vashishtha. Despite this, Vashishtha “bore it as Meru bears the earth” (I.178.43) and decides to give up his life rather than harm Vishvamitra. When Kalmashapada tries to devour Vashishtha’s pregnant daughter-in-law, Vashishtha intervenes to free him from the Rakshasa state. The amazing nobility of the sage is now seen. Kalmashapada, like Pandu, has been cursed with death in intercourse. Hence he begs Vashishtha to father a son on his queen Madayanti (she, unlike Madri, repulsed her husband’s amorous advances) and the sage consents. When his vengeful grandson Parashara organises a Rakshasa-destruction sacrifice (prefiguring the serpent-annihilation rite of Janamejaya), it is Vashishtha who dissuades him from exterminating innocent Rakshasas for the fault of Kalmashapada. Not only this, but when the penitent Vishvamitra, finally free from envy, approaches him begging pardon, it is Vashishtha who crowns his relentless pursuit after recognition by addressing him as brahmarshi! The perfect self-control seen in Vashishtha, whose name means “sense-subduer”, is unparalleled and is the supreme instance of the superiority of spiritual and moral strength over brute power.
Vishvamitra shows the world that a Kshatriya can become a great Brahmin sage as Parashurama showed that a Brahmin can become the greatest of all warriors. It is Vishvamitra’s characteristic to take up lost causes. Thus, grateful to Trishanku (a prince of the Ikshvaku dynasty banished for having angered his father, eaten Vashishtha’s cow and raped a Brahmin’s bride) for nourishing his family during a famine, Vishvamitra goes all out to ensure that the sacrifice sought to be held by him is a success, despite the boycott by Vashishtha and the gods. Trishanku had lost caste and was living with Chandalas. The incensed Vishvamitra took up the challenge and created new deities to accept the offerings (in the Rig Veda III.9 he refers to 3339 gods in place of the Vedic 33). Vishvamitra had no hesitation in asking a Chandala to share with him the only food available, dog’s meat, on the eminently practical ground that if the body itself did not exist, how could one practice dharma and earn merit? However, where spiritual wisdom was concerned, it was Vashishtha who remained the supreme master, as sublimely recorded in the Yoga-Vashishtha Ramayana.
It is these sages who play a critical role in securing the cohesiveness of the social structure and establishing it on the highest principles of human conduct, protecting which is the job of the Kshatriya raja. One of the reasons for the collapse of moral order noticed in the epic is the absence of great sages in the courts of Hastinapura, Indraprastha and Dvaraka. Dhritarashtra’s family priest is not even mentioned, while the Pandavas pick up Dhaumya, who is no more than a good ritualist. The Yadavas have no sages counselling them. The age of Vashishtha and Vishvamitra is long passed. Vyasa is no replacement for them.
Yet, it is Vyasa who is the stage-manager, truly the “arranger” as his name denotes. At every critical stage he appears to provide a different turn to the course of events. Commanded by his mother to intervene to save the dynasty, he cannot cut himself off thereafter. It is he who ensures that Gandhari does not discard her aborted foetus, and produces from it the 101 Dhartarashtras (as long back Aurva had the 60,000 sons of Sagara). He appears at the right time to guide the Pandavas to Draupadi’s svayamvara, and ensures that she is married to all five of them. During the exile it is Vyasa who advises Arjuna how to obtain celestial weapons. It is because of him that Sanjaya can see the entire battle and narrate it to Dhritarashtra. After the war he steps in to prevent general annihilation from the twin missiles launched by Arjuna and Ashvatthama. Finally, it is he who advises the Pandavas to depart on their last journey. It is Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa’s anguished cry—placed ironically in the “Ascension to Heaven” section—that is left ringing in our ears, echoing down the dusty corridors of recorded time. One answer to it is provided in Bhishma’s discourse from the death-in-life bed of arrows in terms of the metaphor of the Kamavriksha which Sri Ramakrishna transformed into the marvellous parable of desire under the Kalpataru. It is the other Krishna—Vasudeva—who evokes it in a wondrous eidetic image that begins with the same word, urdhva, and goes on to provide the solution:-
urdhvamulamadhah shakhamashvattham prahurvyayam /
chandamsi yasya parnani yastam veda sa vedavit //
They say there is an eternal ashvattha tree,
Whose roots are above, whose branches are below,
And whose leaves are said to be the Vedas;
The person who knows this tree
Is the person who knows the Vedas.
Its branches spread above and below,
And are nourished by the gunas.
Its flowers are sense-pleasures.
Below the tree, in the world of mankind,
Are still more roots, which bind human beings to karma…
Slice this firm-rooted ashvattha
With the sharp sword of non-attachment.
Each of us has to find that answer for oneself. Each one of us has to become the protagonist in one’s individual course of life. What the epic can and does provide us is with are lessons to be drawn from the experiences of the leaders in the epic narrative, so that we can, avoid those pitfalls and live a proactive instead of a reactive life; shape our destiny using power not for self-aggrandisement but for developing the self to subserve the public weal.
All English translations from the Mahabharata are taken from Padma Shri Prof. P. Lal’s verse-by-verse transcreation of the complete epic (Writers Workshop, Calcutta, December 1968 ff.). The original Sanskrit text is taken from the Aryashastra recension (Mahamilan Math, Calcutta, 1968 ff.).
More by : Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya