Dharma: The Most Ambiguous of All Words

  I raise my arms and I shout—but no one listens!From dharma comes success and pleasure;why is dharma not practiced?  (The Eighteenth Book:Heaven: 50, 62)

                                                                                                                        

Dharma is the word that is most commonly used by all and sundry to escape from the responsibility of owning what needs to be done in a specific situation. It is a shield that saves us all from situations that call for taking a side. In the name of Dharma, we shy away from acting as we should. Is it not our Dharma to abide by what scriptures say? But what do our scriptures say? What is written about Dharma and what is actually practiced in the name of Dharma is really not compatible. It is the same as preaching one thing and practicing another. Does it mean that there exist two sets of rules—one that apply to “us” and the second that apply to “others”. If an ordinary mortal resorts to such double standards, we criticize the person no end but when the same is done by the mythological figures of our great epics, no one questions their deeds as they are the ones beyond criticism. My reading of the Mahabharata brought me to question certain such situations. The conduct of certain characters under such critical situations, revealed through the choices they made, brings to surface the difference between what they say and what they actually resort to.

Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, is thought about a woman who was married to an impotent man and she attracts the sympathies of the readers for being faithful to her impotent husband. She is depicted as a faithful wife who would go to the extent of praying to different gods to bless her with children at the command of her husband. She fulfilled this task for the perpetuation of the Kuru lineage and for no other reason. The images that come in front of my eyes while thinking of this act is very pure and innocent. A pious looking woman, fresh after taking her ritual bath, making entreaties with folded hands to god. The prayer on her lips is what her husband her commanded her to pray—“Grant me a son.” B. R. Chopra’s tele serial helped me to further substantiate this image when a light or halo would be shown entering her womb and lo a child in the making would be implanted. I really wonder why my rational self could never bring me to question the truth of such a representation. In fact the moral conditioning is so strong in many a cases that even to think in a human way about these characters seems derogatory. I could never bring myself to question the truth and derogate our most revered mythic characters. How wrong I was. It was the close reading of the epic that brought to light the reality that how human all these characters were, just like me and you, apt to error. There is a very apt shloka in the Mahabharata that shows Kunti, when seen in the light of another choice that she makes, as an ordinary woman who had different rules for herself than what she had for others.

When Kunti, as commanded by her husband, gives birth to three sons Pandu is ecstatic. Like a greedy man Pandu displays “the more the better” attitude in the Mahabharata and doesn’t seem to put a stop to this psychological fatherhood. Perhaps like all Kuru kings he also had a strange streak that in spite of being weak procreators; they wished to have strong progeny in large numbers. But the “wise” Kunti refuses bluntly reminding greed crazed Pandu of what is lawful according to the scriptures, which she seems to know quite well:

The wise do not sanctiona fourth conception, even in crisis.The woman who has intercoursewith four men has loose morals;the woman who has intercoursewith five is prostitute. (123.83) 

Her advice is worth appreciation and Kunti must have earned all my respect had I not read another incident of the epic in great details. Kunt, the wife had some rules, as prescribed by Dharma but the same Kunti in the role of mother just forgets about all those rules. It is sad but true that when it comes to your prospective daughter-in-law, all Indian mothers start behaving like Kunti. The Hindu society would have been wonderful and the greatest had there been not much difference between what we preach and what we practice.

Kunti had a choice to implement her advice at another point when her inadvertent and innocent (?) remark makes the Pandava brothers wonder as to what to do. Kunti had told her husband that begetting sons from more than four men would make her be called a prostitute. But she herself is more than ready to make Draupadi to face the same stigma.

Is it not questionable that such a wise and dharma knowing woman like Kunti who herself gives this advice to her husband, makes her own daughter-in-law, who is young and vulnerable, to marry all the five brothers and as a result be called a public woman in the assembly by Karna.

I am really sad that a dharma knowing woman like Kunti failed to take a firm decision when she could show that there was no difference between what she preached and what she practiced. Had she done what was expected as per dharma, the Mahabharata would have been a different story. Could she not have the same dharma and same set of rules—same as she applied to herself as she did to the other?

But how could it be? Was she not a mother-in-law and in this role her sons’ future was all that she could think of?

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