Season of joy

The sun is the gateway to the path of the gods Mahabharata

An enduring image from the Mahabharata is that of the mortally wounded patriarch Bhishma Pitamaha lying on a bed of arrows, waiting for precisely this date – 14th January – to die.  Blessed with the boon of selecting the time of death, he chose Makara Sankranti,  a highly auspicious day in the Hindu calendar, because death on this day would grant him moksha, release from the cycle of rebirth.

On Makara Sankranti, the sun enters (Sankranti) the sign of Capricorn (Makara) and begins its northward journey, Uttarayan. For us earthlings, it means that our days will now be increasingly long and warm. While northerners celebrate the end of winter, in the south, especially Tamil Nadu, this day is marked for an important harvest festival, Pongal, when an offering of cooked rice is made to the sun.

The overflowing of the cooking pot, representing an inexhaustible vessel, is considered a sign of good luck, and it, too, finds an echo in the epic: When the Pandavas began their thirteen-year-exile, their circumstances were considerably reduced. Understanding this, Surya presented Yudhisthir with an Akshaya Patra, a cooking pot that would assure him an endless supply of food,  as he was still obligated to feed all visitors.

Yaska, a 5th BCE grammarian, classified the chief Vedic deities as three: Agni whose place is on the earth, Vayu or Indra, whose place is in the air, and Surya, who occupies the sky. While worship of the first two gods has somewhat declined, worshipping the Sun is a tradition that has continued to present times, as evidenced by the chanting of the sacred Gayatri mantra in which the deity is referred to as Savitr, ‘the one that rises and sets’.

Among the sun’s 1008 names is Bharga ( Evolver). ‘This Evolver is the soul of all that exists in the three worlds, whether animate or inanimate. There is nothing apart from it.’ As the source of life and light – physical, mental spiritual – the sun is the nearest image we have of divinity.

Mothers & Others

Your son will have your glory, but will he have your name? By what name will he be called?’

The look he sent me was full of irony. ‘Would it be wrong if he was called by your name – as Kaunteya?’

How little you know of this world!’ I said, bitterly.

(source: The Kaunteyas – pg 62)

Kaunteya (singular) is a matronymic, a personal name derived from the name of the mother, grandmother or a female ancestor. It means ‘Kunti’s son’ – just as Pandava means ‘Pandu’s son’ – and is equally applicable to the four sons born of Kunti.

We know that Kunti is the birth mother of the elder three Pandavas: Yudhisthira, Bheem and Arjuna. But what these three brothers do not know is that they have another sibling by the same mother. In ancient times, a matronymic was used when referring to the son of an unwed mother (as is the case with Karna), or when the mother was a powerful figure in her own right, such as a queen. Thus, in the epic, each of the twin sons of Kunti’s co-wife, Queen Madri, is referred to as Madreya (Madreyas in plural). Likewise, the five sons of Draupadi are called Draupadeyas.

Another matronymic in the epic is Partha.Though it is used mostly for Arjun, it can apply just as well to Karna, Yudhisthira and Bheem. (In recent times, the well known Bengali author poet and playwright, Buddhadeb Bose wrote a popular play Pratham Partha, which is about Karna.) Partha means ‘Pritha’s son’, Pritha being Kunti’s birth name before she was given away in fosterage to Kuntibhoja. In those days, queens were often known by the name of the kingdom that they came from, so Pritha became Kunti.


Good Girls Don’t

“Girls in our family are taught to run a household, trained to be good, dutiful wives in the future but you have encouraged her to study the Shastras because she has a sharp mind – that was what you said. How does a sharp mind reveal itself but through a sharp tongue? In a woman is that a virtue or a vice?”

(source: pg 28-29, The Kaunteyas)

One of the criticisms made about modern TV soaps is about the regressive depiction of women – evil saas, submissive bahu – that reinforces gender stereotyping. However, screen actors act according to a script, the episode is watched by an unknown audience. Oral storytelling performances require performers to be more sensitive to their audiences. Coming from this milieu, the world as depicted in the Mahabharata, is also complex and nuanced, particularly in its depiction of women.

We know the Mahabharata as a tale of enmity between two branches of the same family that ends in a terrible war. Rivalry is a recurrent theme in the epic. For instance, the unspoken sibling rivalry between Dhritarashtra and Pandu mutates, in the next generation, into the deadly enmity between their children.

A subplot of the story is the intense competition between the two best archers of that time, Karna and Arjun. In the sweep of the narrative, it is sometimes overlooked that they, too, are half brothers. The fact that they, themselves, are unaware of the kinship adds piquancy and pathos to the tale. Until the eve of the war, the relationship is known only to their mother Kunti.

What compels her to maintain this secret almost right to the bitter end? Why does she choose to reveal it at a critical point in the story? What are the lifelong consequences that she suffers for keeping this secret? Finally, what role does the secret play in shaping the larger events of the Mahabharata? These are intriguing questions that lead us towards insights into the feminine world of the epic, as well as to a deeper understanding of patriarchal society. Most of all, the questions allow us to enter the mind of an important but elusive character from the epic and see its events from her perspective.