Peeping at the world of my father through his words…

When I put my hands on the Agni purana, I held it with love, delicacy and affection as it was a relic of my childhood days. its paper had yellowed, the cover had given way but the inside paper was intact. i was lovingly going through its leaves when suddenly I came across some papers inside it. as I have always believed that you can come across treasure kept secretly in big old books, with abated breath, I unfolded the papers and looked at them.

I was dumbfounded when I looked at the paper as it was in my father’s handwriting. How could I ever forget long and drawling hand that he wrote in.  The paper was sanctimonious. My father has been dead for more than twenty-one years now and holding in my hands a paper in his handwriting moved me a lot. More surprise was in store for at the revelation that this paper held. It was my father’s official communication after he had joined at Head Post office Simla in March, 1947, some five months before India became free! The fact that the paper was more than 61 years old and the ink he had used to write in was equally old, the letters on the paper were bright and illuminated the way my father always had been!

I went through the paper and two things struck me at the very start–one was the impeccable style of writing that he had and the handwriting. As a teacher of English, I always look for mistakes in any write-up so unconsciously I was searching for one in my father’s official communication  as well but amazingly found none! There were no cutting, no overwriting and no mistake–grammatical or otherwise. it becomes more important when I think that his only grouse with life had been that he was not able to continue his studies. He wanted so much to complete B.A. but had the satisfaction of having completed only F.A.! But he always wanted us, his kids, to do our best in studies and did everything possible within his means to see to it.

Holding the letter in my hands I was able to peep at the world of my father through his words! The old world charm, held in Agni Purana, opened up a barrage of emotions in my heart which I promise to write shortly!

Dharma favours the Stronger–The Mahabharata

 9 May, 2007

What a strong man says

often becomes the only dharma;

a weak man may have dharma on his side

but who listens to him?

…To tell you the truth

These are the sentences uttered by Bhisma in the Sabha Parva when Draupadi is seeking help from all those who claim to know dharma but are unable to uphold it! Bhisma, the misogynist, who ruins the lives of Amba, Ambika, Kunti, Gandhari, and watches, without being perturbed, the attempted disrobing of Draupadi, comes as a weak person in the sabha parva. And it really goes to the credit of Draupadi to maintain her head leveled even at that crucial moment.

Why do the people we wxpect to speak for us keep mum when it is most needed? Why women, even today, have to take a stand to fight it to the best of their capacity?

When I take a stand against the arbitrarily reached at decisions of the establishment, these lines and the references make me more resolved to fight and lodge my protest.

Has anything changed in the present day world?? No, nothing has changed!

The Death of Bhishma, the Warrior…

April 03, 2007

It was Bhishma’s body that was killed by Arjuna during the famous Mahabharata war as he had died the day Amba asked the Dharma knowing Bhishma for the reasons for her abductions.

The Death of Bhishma, the Warrior…

A fiery Amba

A sneering Amba

Epitome of vile

Hatred and despise,

stares hard

with burning eyes

At the grandiose

he-man of the Kurus

strong, invincible,

stoic and impregnable

esteemed Dharma Guru.

Ganga Putra, Bhishma.

Standing still,

shocked and immobile

Bowed headed

Lips sealed

Eyes cast downward

The warrior’s arms

Limp and flaccid

Lack the strength

The show of manliness

That they displayed

In the royal court

Pulling and putting

defenceless and fragile

Damsels three

Making them slaves

Of his will free.

But today

He stands shamed

Mute and maimed

When fiery Amba

Epitome of courage

Strength and power

Questions his manhood

His powerful

Actions of glory

Asking for

Consummation

Of her maidenly right

But the grand man

The Dharma knowing

Bhishma

Could not defeat

The empowered

Awakened

Frail little princess.

Could not meet

Those fiery eyes

And burnt alive

A death unsung

And unceremonious.

Its Your Life…

February 21, 2007

Cannot even curse you

To suffer till infinity

Like Ashwathama

You would fill the universe

With painful existence

As more you live

Not joys and happiness

But pains would you give

To all who love you,

As you are born to suffer

And cause sufferings

To those around you.

Drona would have not

Suffered humiliation;

The jeering laughter

Of his friend Drupad,

Had it not been for

His love for the hungry son

Craving for milk

That poor he could not

Get for him.

Became a Rajguru

To earn and fill

His son’s life with

All the pleasures

Wealth and money

And the royal friends

For a company!

A Rajguru remained mum

A Dharma knowing

Bestowing teacher

Watched a young woman

Disrobed and humiliated

All because of his son

Whose future rosy and glowing

Was all that he craved!

Sided with the Kauravas

Though knew it well

In his heart

But could not tell

The dharma was with

The Pandavas!

But his son

His Ashwathama

A precious part

Of his being.

Did he achieve

All that glory and fame

That his poor father

Had worked hard to gain?

Had Drona known

The future of his son

Roaming the limitless universe

Injured forehead

Stinking and bleeding

Living till eternity

To suffer his ignominy

Would Drona sided

With the unjust?

Or had taken the side

Of those who wanted

Him to speak at least

As was he not a witness

To all that transpired.

The mute and mum

Teacher who taught

Morality and values

To all who came to learn

And when it came to practice

Chose to remain quiet and mum!

His true feelings

The unanswered dictum

The unspoken words

The unopened letters

Remain hidden

Under the dust of time

Making many more

Dronas and Ashwathamas

How can I

The one who can see

And realize the pain of

Ashwathama

Can curse you to

Live till infinity

And to suffer ignominy

As I still carry

The fragrance of our

Togetherness and

For old times sake

Bless you to live

And confer whole heartedly

My blessings and good wishes.

 

Hidimba the unacknowledged Heroine of the Mahabharata

The Gita Press Gorakhpur’s the Mahabharata has beautiful black and white sketches inserted in the text itself and it adds manifold to the charm of the epic. I would look at the pictures and read the text along with to get pleasure out of my reading. One particular picture that I still carry in my memory is of Hidimba, the Rakshsi. I used to watch the pictures intently as in one she would be looking ferocious and in another she would transform herself into a coy looking beautiful damsel. This transformation at will was what made me awestruck and somewhere deep inside me I carried a desire to have such power in my hands!

I always perceived, like multitudes of other Hindus, believing upon mythic stereotypes that Hidimba, a ferocious looking demoness, transformed herself into a bewitching beauty the moment her fancy was captured by the physical charms of Bhima, the powerful son of Kunti. In my imagination I would see her transform into a beauty the way Cindrella would be transformed into a beauty, and how would I envy her. In case of Cindrella, at least our sympathies lied with her as we wished for her to be happy and as such this transformation brought about a relief to us. But is case of Hidimba, it was a trickery to trap a gullible prey, not for eating it up but for getting carnal pleasure to relish his beauty.

So Hidimba seemed like a predator to me whereas Bhima was a prey. I sympathized with all Pandava brothers and their mother Kunti, an old hapless widow, who had to give away her son to the carnal whims and fancies of a rakshasi!

And then my visit to a temple dedicated to Hidimba made me wonder as why people would worship a Rakshsi? I was further in for strange revelations when I tried finding more about the temple and its deity.

Hidimba Devi temple stands in the midst of a sacred cedar forest near the town of Dunghri at the verdant foot of the
Himalaya mountains.  The sanctuary is built over an enormous rock that juts out of the ground, worshipped as a manifestation of Durga, the "Hill Mother" or goddess of the earth.  The temple was constructed in 1553 by Maharaja Bahadur Singh, who made a promise to the Hidimba, deity of the Mahabharata epic.

The interior of the temple is occupied by the large rock and contains no useable space except for the ground floor.  Curiously, a rope dangles from the ridge that is said to have been used to hang victims by the hand, who were then swung–bleeding and bruised–over the large rock in the presence of the goddess. However, the goddess herself is represented only once in a three inch tall brass image. Though I was wonderstruck but this didn’t change much the earlier image that I carried about Hidimba though honestly speaking a fissure had developed in my mind about what I perceived to be true.

I would have carried the same image and also transpired the same to my children as well had it not been reading rewritings of the Mahabharata along with a close reading of the text as well. What an average reader finds objectionable in the demeanour of Hidimba is her frank invitation to a male to have a relationship with her as such a desire coming from a female is something against the Indian sensitivity. Females have always been conditioned in the society to downplay their desires especially the ones dealing with sexuality.

A close reading of the epic made me aware of the hard fact that what a woman can do to another woman. Hidimba fell in love with Bhima and like a frank and innocent Hill woman had the honesty to acknowledge her love in the plainest possible language. Bhima, the faithful son, could not muster courage to accept it and finally the girl requests Kunti to help her. She has a firm conviction that being a woman Kunti would be able to understand her plight. I remember that as a young girl I was really full of admiration for Kunti as she allowed her brave son to spend some time with Hidimba, the Rakshsi! So considerate of her!

But later on when I came to know of the real reason behind her approval, I was disgusted. It is again Kunti’s firm guidance and far-sighted statesmanship that is depicted in the Mahabharata where she approves of Hidimba’s infatuation for Bhima. This approval is based on her being conscious of the need for allies in their forlorn condition. Kunti, therefore, orders Bhima:

You know Hidimba loves you…Have a son by herI wish it. He will workfor our welfare. My son.I do not want a nofrom you, I want your promisenow, in front of both of us. (157.47-49) 

It is absolutely clear from the above lines that Kunti as a far-sighted statesperson, uses Hidimba as a tool to provide them with a powerful son to be used in war against Kauravas. The epic shows how right and prophetic Kunti had proved to be. Ghatotkacha, the fruit of this union, proves to be very useful for them during the exile, and later as Arjuna’s saviour from Karna’s infallible weapon at the cost of his own life.

When Kunti, along with her five sons, decides to leave the forest, she does not, even for a second, think about Hidimba. What happens to Hidimba? She is left in the forest all by herself. With no male relative to look after her and carrying Bhima’s child in her womb, the proud Hidimba does not cry and plead. She accepts her fate. But could Kunti not be a little sympathetic? Was it because Hidimba came from a different culture? A non-Aryan woman and without any coffers to promise at that. The only thing that she could give them was her only son, Ghatotkacha, to be sacrificed in the Mahabharata war. Ironically Ghatotkacha, the eldest of all Pandava progeny is used as a prey in the war and his proud and brave mother sends him to the war without ever complaining of the injustice having been meted down upon her.

I was able to appreciate why Himachali people have erected a temple dedicated to her and worship her as reigning deity of Kullu valley. The annual Rath yatra during the Kullu Dussahra does not start till Hidimba Devi’s chariot leads the procession. At least the people of Himachal have tried to undo the injustice done to this proud, unsung heroine of the Mahabharata.

I feel humble even to think about the kind of sacrifices that this unacknowledged heroine of the Mahabharata has made.

 

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?

The Mahabharta As I Remember It!

 

                                                                                                                                 “Oh! Why did I read The Mahabharata when I had you in my womb?” my mother would shout in dismay whenever my sister and I used to indulge in our customary endless fights in our childhood to claim our possession over some common object that interested both of us.

 It was but natural keeping in view the fact that I followed her just after 20 months of her birth, and my mother exasperated after the hard task of looking after the usual household chores and perhaps overburdened by two she-devils which she had as her daughters would put the blame squarely on the great epic for having daughters who were fighting all the time. The poor lady felt morally responsible for this fighting spirit present in both of us as compared to our much docile and cousins that she was certain that it had something to do with her reading of the Mahabharata   that has made us so diehards when it so much so as came to sharing a small toy !

And what upset her more was that she had read the Mahabharata with so much of devotion, reverence and a strong belief to have off springs with inborn qualities of the heart and the soul. Such was her devotion that she would religiously read the Mahabharata and pray to the God to bestow her with a child that would surpass others in matters related to learning and morality. And here we were quarreling over small pretexts. I vividly remember my elder sister once hitting me hard with a pencil knife which she was sharpening her pencil with. My howling along with my mother’s outburst made whole of the neighborhood assemble to the great embarrassment of my father. This further made me firm in my conviction that my mother’s reading of the Mhabharata had something to do with this killer’s instinct that we had developed.

  

 That was my first introduction to the great epic and the name connoted to me something dreadful concerned with sibling rivalry and an obsession to win over something that becomes a bone of contention between two warring groups. It was not only my mother but all the people of our acquaintance who would refer to Kauravs and Pandavas while comparing us.

 It so happened that my mother in her solemn quest to beget a wonderful child started reading the great epic as the wise old women of her acquaintance had filled her impressionable mind with the so called words of wisdom that the child in the womb learns all that transpires the mind and soul of the mother during her pregnancy and incidentally as luck would have it, the Gita Press Gorakhpur, to which my parents subscribed regularly, had brought out the third edition of the Mahabharata a year prior  to the birth of my elder sister, and as it had two parts and as per my mother’s statement, she was  unable to finish both the parts during her first confinement and  started with the second part of the Mahabharata when she carried me in her womb not only because she had  conceived  the second time soon after the birth of my sister but also had developed a keen interest to follow the second part of the great epic to know the outcome of the great war of all times to have taken place in this great country of ours or what I think today, perhaps to find out how the vows of Draupadi taken during the disrobing would be fulfilled by her five brave husbands!

I thank my mother silently for having read the second part of the Mahabharata while carrying me inside her as now I understand that  it is the second part which contains the real message of this great epic and whenever someone comments upon my prowess in handling matters I silently credit the mahabharata for having filled me with knowledge while I lay cuddled in the safe and secure womb of my mother. This notion was further reinforced by learning from my mother that Abhimanyu had learnt the secret of entering the Chakaravihu while Arjuna shared the technique with his wife and yet to be born Abhimanyu lay in the secure womb of his mother, although the death of this great warrior made me wish that why couldn’t his mother keep him huddled inside her, to save him from the cruel end that befell him later!

  

The other indelible memory of the Mahabharata that I carry pertains to a movie that I saw when of impressionable age titled perhaps Mahabharata wherein the scenes concerning the disrobing of Draupadi which instead of making me sorry for her, rather made me envious that Lord Krishna himself came to her rescue whereas never would he show his concern for a lesser mortal like me. As a young fed on the staple diet of Puranas and epics and the monthly issues of the Kalyanas that abounded our home, I had started believing firmly that the Gods appeared at once whenever someone would appeal to them straight from the heart, and in my innocence had appealed to God so many times seeking numerous articles that my parents would not provide us with and fighting with others for some thing that they possessed made little sense to me, after all a lesson that I had learnt was that although it was within the precincts of the Dharma to fight with your siblings for your rights but was unfair to fight with others. Although to seek a favor from the God was an acceptable practice and He always bestowed the believers in a bountiful manner.

  

But He never cared for my prayers, how many times had I asked Him to get for me the first position in the class or even a new dress and He was providing heaps and heaps of saree to a damsel in distress, Draupadi of course. How partial and partisan even Gods were but it was another truth that the Mahabharata had put in my small head, had not even Lord Krishana, the embodiment of truth itself behaved in a biased manner!  Another scene which has become an inseparable part of my memory refers to the jeering and mocking laughter of Draupadi when Duryodhana wasn’t able to distinguish between the water and the floor. Weren’t we all drilled with some basic good sense in our childhood not to laugh at a person for a deformity which was not within his capacity to mend and worse still was to laugh at a person for a physical deformity that his parents unfortunately had acquired for no fault of theirs. How ill mannered indeed and then everyone blames poor Duryodhana for his stubbornness. How could a princess married in the royal family of Kuru’s, behave in such unbecoming manner, really astonished me even when I was too small to comprehend such matters. And here was my mother who would scold me at the drop of a hat even if I would be slightly disrespectful towards anyone. Looking back today, I really thank my mother to have put in my small head to be respectful and even if I had any disrespect, not to let it show on my face, leave alone to speak out and that too in such sarcastic and jeering manner.

It was, in fact, B. R. Chopara’s tele-serial The Mahabharata which as an adult, a wife, a mother and more important as a woman I was able to appreciate as Rupa Ganguli had put life in the portrayal of Draupadi’s character that changed most of my earlier views and I started to analyze the women of the Mahabharata. It was at this stage that the stark reality about women as chattels and the private property of the men folks descended upon me.

How could Kunti make Draupadi share all five Pandavas as her husband passed my comprehension? Had Draupadi no say in the crucial decision regarding her life and that too when I envied these Aryan women for enjoying so much freedom in choosing their husbands to be. Why couldn’t the so called, Dharma incarnate, the all-knowledgeable Yudhishtir rise to the occasion to challenge the immoral diktat of his mother? The knowledge that he himself argued the case for sharing Draupadi among all the five brothers further sickened me as was he not a man who never spoke but truth?  And the least said about Arjuna the better it is as he being the one responsible for winning the stakes put for the marriage of Draupadi must would have the courage to speak against this illogic practice that was nowhere legally sanctioned among the Aryans at that point of time and place. Was it not his duty as a husband to protect his wife from all problems? All my sympathies lay with Draupadi as she represented everything that a hapless woman would have to undergo in this male dominated society.

Whatever may have been the reasons of Kunti for this decision but I developed my own serious reservations about the moral conduct of the royal scions. Perhaps it was the turning point for me as I started understanding the famed epic in a new light. While analyzing the reasons that led Kunti to take such a step, I delved deep into her character and found her to be more sinned against than sinning. How could a young princess- robust, healthy and bubbling with youth would have felt when married to a prince who turned out to be impotent, and more so when this prince was not forced down her throat by a pushing father but she herself had selected from the august gathering of the royal scions? Of course with a royal nod after the garlanding ceremony and a little prodding before the ceremony to tilt the scales in the favor of the great Kuru prince.

  I sympathized with Kunti when all her dreams turned out to be futile, but all that sympathy vanished when she copulated with others to beget sons to propagate the Pandu lineage, I would have retained my sympathies had she fallen in extramarital relations just to satisfy her own cravings of the flesh and motherhood. Why it had to be a male to dictate her to do something which even in today’s world has not a universal acceptance and what to say of appreciation.

  

The dilemma that I wavered in-between was the result of my appreciation of the women of the Mahabharata as supernatural beings incapable of any misconduct and therefore beyond human criticism, but B. R. Chopra’s tele-serial atleast was able to bring out these characters as humans as we are and replete with all human follies. This revelation renewed my courage to study these seemingly out of the world characters in their human form and  try to seek the reasons for what I found to be lacking  in their morals and conduct, without feeling guilty. This quest to find more about the characters who had been worshipped throughout the ages without even once questioned about what was wrong and what was right by the common people, led me to search for the recreation of the fiction based on the Mahabharata and surprisingly I found the literary scene if not abound but atleast sufficiently littered with such works even in regional languages that brought to surface all those questions that had haunted me right from my childhood.

I remained haunted by these questions and was able to find answers only when I read the new interpretations of the Mahabharata by modern writers. All these years I had thought myself to be a little of a misnomer and was uncomfortable for not believing in what rest of the people seemed to ardently believe upon, but in the ensuing readings of various books which dealt at  length the pain and angst of the females, I started feeling that I was not alone in my feelings.

  

Another question that troubles me these days is that what is the use if a few individuals engaged in critically analyzing these theories, circulate these among themselves without even trying to change the mind set of the people at large where it really matters. Is it not an accepted fact that the stereotypes of the women in the psyche of the masses remain by and large the same? An act of disrobing of a woman or even an attempt in this regard is the manifestation of the power that a man would love to display, a la Dushashna.

The stereotypes of Indian womanhood are so deep rooted in the Indian psyche that attempts at disrobing women or even to make them feel inferior to men have become very common and I personally find misinterpretation of our great epics to be responsible for it. Are we not fed upon the stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana but are always encouraged to become like Sita, an ideal wife? And never have I found reference to encourage a daughter to be like Draupadi! So much so that my own mother was rebuked by an elderly and worldly wise matron for keeping the Mahabharata in her home as she thought it to be an ill omen to keep this classic piece of Hindu literature in household!

But I have kept the Mahabharata at my own home without anyone telling me not to! And would I had listened to such an illogical advice?