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PART II: FIVE HOLY VIRGINS, FIVE SACRED MYTHS Of Kunti and Satyawati Sexually Assertive Women of the Mahabharata Pradip Bhattacharya Our five-part series, begun in issue 141, on the Panchakanyas of the Indian epics, takes its starting point from a Sanskrit verse in praise of five unusual women: Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara and Mandodari . In their stories, in their choices and the
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  No.142 21 K unti and Draupadi are two women who shapethe entire course of dynastic destiny in the  Mahabharata . Kunti chooses the scion of Hastinapura, Pandu, to wed, and becomes the mother of the epic’s protagonists: the Pandavas. By birth, she is aYadava and her brother’s son is Krishna, one of the majorshapers of epic action. Draupadi, arriving virtually out of nowhere as the adopted daughter of Drupada, king of Panchala and rival of Hastinapura, becomes the commonwife of the Pandavas and the cause celebre of the epic.In the  Mahabharata , Draupadi and Kunti are not onlyclosely related to each other as daughter-in-law andmother-in-law, but are also parallels. Kunti, or Pritha, isthe daughter of Shoora of the Vrishnis, given away when just a child to her father’s childless friend Kuntibhoja.This rankles deep within her; she voices her resentmentpointedly both before and after the Kurukshetra war(V.90.62-64). Growing up in Kuntibhoja’s apartments, shefinds no mother;Kuntibhoja himself handsher over, in adolescence,to the vagaries of theeccentric, irascible andfiery sage Durvasa.Should she displease thesage, she is warned, itwill dishonour herguardian’s clan as well asher own.Large-eyed and well-endowed, as her namePritha connotes, she isstrikingly lovely, andKuntibhoja exhorts hernot to neglect any service out of pride in her beauty.Kunti’s relationship with Durvasa does not appear tohave been easy. In the account she gives much later toVyasa, she tells him that despite Durvasa’s conducthaving been such as to provide abundant cause for anger,she had not given way to it (XV.30). She further statesthat she was constrained at the sage’s insistence to accepthis boon, whereby any god would be compelled to answerher summons, and that she obeyed out of fear of his curse.The interaction that she describes after this between herand the sun god, Surya, is exactly similar – the sameinsistence and the same fear.Kunti, like Ahalya with Indra, is curious. She wishesto test whether Durvasa’s boon really works. Significantly,this desire arises in her after she has menstruated. In heraccount to Vyasa, she frankly states that she had desired( sprihayanti ) Surya, again reminding us of Ahalya whenapproached by Indra. Perceiving a radiant being in therising sun she invites him,using the mantra. Oncesummoned, Surya, likeIndra, will not returnunsatisfied. He cajolesand browbeats the girl,assuring her of unimpaired virginity, andthreatening to consumethe kingdom and theboon-bestowing sage if denied. A thrillingconflation of desire andfear overpower Kunti’sreluctance, and shestipulates that the son Of Kunti and Satyawati Sexually Assertive Women of the  Mahabharata  Pradip Bhattacharya PART II: FIVE HOLY VIRGINS, FIVE SACRED MYTHS Our five-part series, begun in issue 141, on the Panchakanyas of the Indian epics, takes itsstarting point from a Sanskrit verse in praise of five unusual women:  Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti,Tara and Mandodari . In their stories, in their choices and the consequences these led to, we find upheld a pattern of values quite other than is conventionally understood to be the dominant code for women in our epics .  22MANUSHIthus born must be like his father. KshirodeprasadBidyabinode struck home in his Bengali play  Nara Narayana  (1926), with his succinct, yet profound,description of this encounter placed on Karna’s lips:  A maiden’s misstep , a god’s prurient curiosity, A virgin’s curiosity and his shameless lust  .(IV. 3, my translation)Kunti wins two boons from the encounter: her own virgo intacta  and special powers for her son. In this sheis remarkably akin to her grandmother-in-law, Satyavatithe Queen-Mother; to Madhavi, daughter of the lunardynast Yayati (to whose lineage she belongs); and to theYadava Bhanumati who, too, has Durvasa’s boon that, if raped, she will regain her virgin status 1 . Just as Satyavati’sillegitimate son Vyasa protects the Pandavas, it is Kunti’sillegitimate son Karna who becomes the mainstay of thesons of Dhritarashtra and, like Vyasa, also repeatedlychallenges the authority of the family head, Bhishma.Little is written about Satyavati in the  Mahabharata although she transformed the fortunes of the royal lineageof Hastinapura despite her low-caste srcins. Sheobviously engaged the imagination of later redactors inthe  Harivamsa  and even more so in  Devi BhagavataPurana  (II.2.1-36). In her previous birth, Satyavati isnamed Achchhoda, daughter of the  pitris  (manes), cursedto be reborn of apsara -turned-fish Adrika, who swallowedking Uparichara Vasu’s semen. 2  She resembles an earlyqueen of the lunar dynasty, the illegitimate ashramiteShakuntala, daughter of apsara Menaka and king-turned-sage Vishvamitra, who insisted, before giving in toDushyanta’s importunate advances, that the offspring of their union alone would inherit the throne of Hastinapura.We meet Satyavati in the epic and in  pauranic accounts as an adolescent fisher-girl called Kali, becauseof her dark complexion, plying her boat across the black Kalinidi (Yamuna) with a lone passenger, the sageParashara, who presses her to satisfy his desires. Findinghim importunate and, pragmatically concerned that hemight upset the boat in midstream, she gives in to him ontwo conditions: that her virginity shall remain unimpairedand that the disgusting body-odour that attends her beremoved. Thus, Kali the Matsyagandha (she who stinksof fish) transforms into Yojanagandha-Gandhakali (shewhose fragrance can be smelled across a  yojana ) wholater will captivate Shantanu, king of Hastinapura. WhenParashara grasps her right hand, Kali smiles, ever so muchin control, ever so mature, and says (my translation): “What you are about to do,befits it your ancestry, your ascesis or the scriptures?Your family name is spotless;of Vashishtha’s clan are you. Hence, O dharma-knower, what is this you crave,enslaved by desire? Best of Brahmins! Rare is human birth on earth.Specially rare in men is Brahmin birth. Best of the twice-born! You are highborn, virtuous,scripture-versed, dharma-knowing.O Indra among Brahmins,my body stinks of fish, yet why do un-Aryan feelings arise in you?O twice-born! Your wisdom is doubtless most prescient,but what auspicious marks do you perceive in my bodythat you crave me thus? Does desire so possess youthat your own dharma you forget?” So saying, she muses: “Oh! mad to possess methis dvija has lost his senses. He’ll upset the boat and drown. He’s desperate, his heart’s pierced by desire’s five arrows; He’s unstoppable.” Then the girl tells the sage: “Great one, be patient till we reach the other bank.”Suta said Parashara heeded her well-meant advice. Her hand he left and sat quiet. But reaching the other side,the sage, desire-tormented,seized Matsyagandha again for intercourse.Quivering, annoyed, she spoke to the sage before her:“O best of sages! My body stinks.Can’t you sense it? Making loveought to delight both equally.” As she spoke, in a flash she turned  fragrant-for-a-yojana,Yojanagandha, lovely, beautiful. Making his beloved musk-fragrant, enchanting,       A      d      i     t      i  No.142 23 the sage, desire-tormented,seized her right hand.Then auspicious Satyavatitold the sage bent on coitus,“From the bank all peopleand my father can see us. It is daylight.Such beastly conduct doesn’t please me. It disgusts me. Hence, O best of sages, wait till nightfall.Coitus is prescribed for menonly at night, not in daytime. In daylight it’s grievous sin;if seen, brings great disrepute.Grant this desire of mine, wise one.”Finding her words proper,the generous sage at onceshrouded all in mist by his powers. As the mist arosedeep darkness shrouded the bank.Then the desirable womanspoke to the sage in dulcet tones:“I’m a virgin, O tiger among twice-born. Enjoying me, you’ll depart where you will. But infallible is your seed, O Brahmin.What of me? If today I’m pregnant,what shall I tell my father?When, enjoying me, you leave,what shall I do? Tell me!”Parashara said, “Beloved, todayhaving delighted me, you shall again be virgin.Yet, woman, if you fear,ask what boon you will.”Satyavati said, “Best of twice-born,ever you honour others. Act that neither my father nor anyoneknows anything. Act that my virgin status isn’t ruined. May your son be like you,wondrously gifted. May my body be forever fragrant; May my youth be forever fresh, ever new.” Assuring Kali of her son’s fame as arranger of theVedas and author of the Puranas, Parashara swoopsupon the consenting maiden. Having sated himself, thesage bathes in the dark waters of Yamuna and leaves,never to have any contact with her again.This fisher-girl’s striking character emerges from thisinteraction. Though she has but just reached puberty, asage, howsoever famous, does not overawe her. Instead,she reads him quite a lesson in propriety, resisting hisadvances with remarkable presence of mind. Noticinghis violent passion, she takes care not to refuse himoutright, lest in forcing her he should capsize the boat.She buys time till they have crossed, hoping his passionwill have cooled by then. Reaching near the other shore,she voices her irritation and disgust at his animal lustand draws attention to her own repulsive body-odourmore than once. With a maturity and frankness thatastonishes us even in the twenty-first century, she pointsout that coitus ought to be mutually enjoyable. Evenafter becoming musk-fragrant she does not give in,objecting to beastly coupling in daylight in public. Onceagain, the sage bows to the logic of her arguments andraises a screen of mist.Yet Kali still does not give in and raises the ultimateobjection: what will her status be when he has defloweredher and departed? No one will point a finger at the high-caste sage, but what about her? With a maturity that isastounding for an uneducated pubescent girl, sheharbours no illusions that the sage might wed her. Hence, Raja Ravi Varma’s version of the Satyavati myth  24MANUSHIshe obtainsassurances of regaining her virginstatus and of thefame of herillegitimate offspring.Only after thesepractical aspectshave been taken careof does she allow theeternal feminine tocome forward,desiring to remainforever young,forever fragrant – agift that was Helen’s,and one that womenof all times,everywhere, havecraved. The  Mahabharata version provides afascinating glimpseinto the femininepsyche:  And she, ecstaticwith her boon,Conceived thesame dayFrom her intercourse withParashara . 3 Matsyagandha is careful to tell the sage that, beingruled by her father, she is not at liberty to respond toParashara’s demand. When she then breaks away fromthis, to assert her independence of action, she achievesthat “one-in-herselfness” 4  that is unique to the virgin.After intercourse she does not become dependent onParashara, by clinging to him or insisting that the momentbe made eternity through formalised marriage. Thepurpose of the encounter fulfilled, both break off withoutany lingering backward glances or mushy sentimentality.No romantic hope is expressed of meeting again, no guilt,not even any anguished query about the child to beborn. Modern-day women could well wish that they werehalf as confident, clear-headed and assertive of theirdesires and goals as Satyavati.Satyavati goes on to take Hastinapura, and its kingShantanu, by storm. When a love-struck Shantanu asksher to marry him, she once again displays hercharacteristic far-sightedness by insisting that she willagree to thewedding only if herprogeny succeed tothe throne. Thusshe manoeuvres thecrown princeBhishma out of reckoning. Whenfate plays her falseand both her sonsdie childless, shefirst asks Bhishmato do his duty asstepbrother and siresons on the widowsby levirate ( niyoga ).Because of his vowof celibacy –ironically the fruit of her own stipulationthat her childrenmust not have anyrival claimants tothe throne – herefuses. Now sheensures that it is herblood that will runthrough the rulingline of Hastinapuraby forcing herprincely sonVichitravirya’swidows to be impregnated by the son of her union withParashara, the illegitimate, mixed-caste Vyasa. As thestepbrother of Vichitravirya he has the social sanctionto beget children on the widowed princesses. Theoffspring, Dhritarashtra and Pandu carry no part of thelunar dynasty’s blood in them. With her low-caste birth,Satyavati does not suffer from high-caste hesitations inbringing her illegitimate son into the limelight. Rather,she makes him the decisive factor in the fortunes of Hastinapura, rivalling the shadowy authority of Bhishma,who is instead ruled by her. Her disregard of socialopprobrium stands out all the more when we find thather royal granddaughter-in-law Kunti does not dareemulate her in acknowledging her illegitimate son Karna.Satyavati turns the renowned Chandravamsha , thelunar dynasty, into the lineage of a  dasa maiden andbrings about a fascinating reversal in  pauranic history.The epic and the Puranas say that the world’s firstmonarch was Vena, who was slain by the Brahmins Shantanu falls in love with Satyavati
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