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Freedom of choice, in times of the Mahabharata

In the Mahabharata, relationships between men and women are interesting in their congruence or branching-off from current Indian societal norms.

Published: 17th April 2017 10:53 PM  |   Last Updated: 18th April 2017 05:41 AM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

HYDERABAD: In the Mahabharata, relationships between men and women are interesting in their congruence or branching-off from current Indian societal norms. For their husbands or for the empire, married women are expected to tread paths that may be against their personal wishes.

Ambika and Ambalika, for example, have intercourse with Krishna Dvaipayana so that the Kuru clan can see a male heir. On the other hand, an incredible amount of freedom is available to unmarried women. Devayani is free to confess her desire for Yayati and demand that he marry her.


Eons later, in her father’s hermitage, Shakuntala gives herself to Dushyanta and is free to choose him as her husband. Further down the epic, the fisherman’s daughter Satyavati is free to accept sage Parashara’s advances, resulting in the birth of Krishna Dvaipayana.

The unmarried Kunti is free to experiment with the boon given to her by sage Durvasa and thus unite with the god Surya.

Years later, when the Pandavas and their mother, Kunti, are living incognito in a forest after having escaped from the burning house in Varanvata, the rakshashi Hidimba openly declares her desire for Bhima, and in a rather bizarre twist, asks Kunti and Yudhistira to grant Bhima permission to make love to her. But in the Mahabharata, if there is sex, a birth has to follow.


And complications arise when childbirth happens without the sanction of marriage. In Satyavati’s case, it is worth noting that she informs about Krishna Dvaipayana’s existence only after the death of her husband Shantanu and her two sons, Chitrangada and Vichitravirya.

The revelation is made to Bhishma, her step-son, at a time of great crisis in Hastinapur. In Kunti’s case, the truth of Karna’s birth is held back even in moments of crisis, till it eventually becomes too late for that truth to affect anything. Marriage, it seems, is necessary to sanctify pre-marital shows of desire. It is alright that there be long, even eternal, periods of separation after these marriages.


There is separation, for example, in the case of Shakuntala and Dushyanta, where things heat up only when after Bharata grows up and Dushyanta refuses to acknowledge him. Shakuntala fl ies into a rage precisely because she stands to lose the marital sanction. Similarly, Bhima’s union with Hidimba is a purely sexual one, initiated by the latter, but sanctifi ed in the name of marriage by the witnesses present around them.

It is alright for Bhima to leave Hidimba after the birth of their son, Ghatotkacha, as long as he maintains the validity of this marriage.

There might be a caste angle to it all as well. Consider the case of Kunti: she is the only who can’t be called out for an earthly infraction, for her dalliance involved a god. And yet, she is the most protective of her secret. Could this be related to the fact that she is the only one born in a kshatriya family among the examples provided.



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