Understanding Mahabharata: The Riddle of Pandu
I once saw a male and a female deer united in coitus. I can still vividly recall the scene from decades ago because the details are indelibly etched in my mind – so radiant was the sight. There was the deer park, with a tall fence of wire mesh around it, surrounded by large trees in verdant green. In the distance was a hillock and nearby, a large lake with branches of ancient trees bending into it under which I often sat with a book in my hand as the sun serenely journeyed towards the ocean in the western sky. The mating deer couple stood there, the front legs of the male over the doe, their bodies united. The female was absolutely still, not a muscle moved in her body, her eyes did not blink; and in those eyes, in her entire body you could see total surrender, surrender to the act that was going on, surrender to life, surrender to existence. She was no more she then, she had lost her individuality, her identity as an individual animal, and had become one with her Mother, with Mother Nature; she had ceased to exist as separate from her. It looked as though she was in some deep trance, a trance that had filled her being with the bliss of surrender to the total. The movement of life all around the united couple, the quiet, unhurried movement of the other deer in the park as they nibbled small grass here and there, the gentle swinging of the trees in the soft breeze, all seemed to add to the stillness in which the doe stood.
The Mahabharata tells us Pandu saw exactly this same sight when he was out hunting one day. The next moment he took out five sharp arrows, golden and shining, with beautiful feathers attached to them, and shot the male and the female. The male, who was a sage who had changed himself into a deer, the epic tells us, cursed Pandu in his moments of death that Pandu would meet with his death when he made love to his wife because he had killed him while he was engaged in coitus.
Pandu had seen the deer couple was engaged in sex – the Mahabharata makes it very clear. He killed them seeing with his eyes that they were making love. Kimdama, the sage who had transformed himself into the deer, tells Pandu what he had done was unthinkable – not even men totally devoid of all intelligence, men who were constantly engaged in sin, men who had no control over their lusts and anger, would do what he had done. Killing a male and a female while they were engaged in coitus is truly unheard of. How could a king of the Bharatas, a royal family so rooted in righteousness, do such a thing?
The question Kimdama asked Pandu puzzled me for a long, long time. In my attempt to understand Pandu and the nature of his action, I read repeatedly all that the Mahabharata tells us about Pandu. And the deeper I delved into his life and his personality, the more puzzled I became. Everything about Pandu seemed to be a riddle.
For instance, why would a young prince after spending thirty nights with his new wife and with an earlier wife, leave them and go on a world conquest in which he ruthlessly, to use the words of the Mahabharata, reduces ‘his rival kings to ashes’? Why would that young prince, the long awaited occupant of the throne of the Kuru-Bharatas, adored by all, immediately after completing a world conquest, at the height of his glory, leave everything behind and go to the forest taking his two wives with him to make hunting his full time occupation? The Mahabharata tells us that his wives advised him to do so. Why would two young wives of a lustrous young king ask him to leave behind his kingdom and all its comforts as well as the challenge and responsibility of ruling it and go and live in the forest, spending his time hunting?
And there were other riddles.
Pandu had to ask his wives to beget children for him with the help of other men through the ancient custom of niyoga. Why exactly did he have to do that? Was it because of the curse of Kimdama? Or had Pandu been impotent all along? How exactly did he die? And the day he chose to die: the fourteenth birthday of his son Arjuna. And the time: It is while mantras were being chanted by a group of brahmanas and Kunti was serving a feast to other brahmanas that Pandu leads Madri away into the quietude of the jungle where he later makes love to her and meets with his death.
Why did he do that? Was Arjuna’s birthday no occasion for celebration for Pandu? Was he registering his protest against the celebration, and against Arjuna and Kunti, by walking away from the feast of which he was the host and hence shouldn’t have left? If so, what was he protesting against?
My first clue came from a verse in the epic. As Pandu lay dead after engaging in sex with his younger wife Madri, Kunti who comes rushing to the scene blames her for their husband’s death. And then she says: “Blessed are you, Madri, and more fortunate than I am. For, you were able to see the face of the king in raptures.” (DhanyA tvam asi bAhleeki matto bhAgyatarA tathA, drshtavatyasi yad vaktram prahrshtasya maheepateh – Adi 124.21). Kunti was referring to the ecstasy of a sexual climax that still lingered on the dead Pandu’s face – an expression Kunti was familiar with on other men’s faces, on the faces of the four different men who had fathered her children, but was never lucky to see on the face of Pandu, her husband.
The Mahabharata takes care to tell us that a smile lingered on Pandu’s face even in his death.
Kunti had never once in her life seen Pandu’s face lost in the throes of sexual ecstasy. She had never once seen on his face that post-coital smile of contentment that was there in his death.
And yet nothing in the Mahabharata tells us that Pandu had rejected her sexually. From all we know, he was deeply in love with her from the day she chose him for a husband to the last day of his life. So if this first wife of his, this beautiful woman he had obtained for himself in a swayamvara and had brought home proudly, the woman he had lived with in regal comforts in Hastinapura and in the loneliness of jungles and mountains, the woman who was his constant companion all through his lonely, tortured life, hadn’t once seen his face in that condition in all their life together, and that in spite of Pandu being desperate for children, then the conclusion is clear and inevitable: Pandu was impotent all through his married life.
That explains a lot of things about Pandu. For instance, it explains why Bheeshma was in a hurry to get a second wife for him. The Mahabharata does not tell us how long it was before Bheeshma went and got Madri for Pandu as a second wife, paying a bride price to her brother Shalya as the Madra-Bahleeka custom demanded. It just tells us a word that means ‘then’ or ‘afterwards’ in the beginning verse of a new chapter – this ‘then’ could be immediately after the Kunti-Pandu marriage, it could be sometime later too. Getting young Pandu a second wife as soon as he had obtained for himself one wife does not make sense, unless it was meant to be an urgent political alliance, which it does not look like. Besides, Bheeshma would have been very, very reluctant to offer his nephew two young beautiful wives at the same time – he had done it with Pandu’s father Vichitraveerya and the consequences were disastrous.
Vichitra had become so obsessed with his two pretty queens that he spent his entire time in sex with them and eventually died of the dreaded royal disease of the day, rajayakshma, all the royal physicians from the kingdom and abroad failing to save his life. It is this death that had made necessary the hated niyogas which produced Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura. It is extremely unlikely that a once scalded Bheeshma would want to repeat his experience so soon again.
The second marriage should have been after some time and there should have been an important reason behind it. It was not a love marriage but an arranged one, a political alliance does not seem to have been a necessity, which leaves us one other strong possibility. The marriage had failed to produce what the Kuru-Bharata family needed more urgently than anything else: an heir to Pandu, in case anything happened to the young king. The Kunti-Pandu marriage had failed to produce offspring, which would be the case if Pandu had been impotent from the beginning. Bheeshma, who had no idea that Kunti was already a mother before her marriage, must have assumed this could be because of some fault with her – the woman is the first suspect in such cases and getting a second wife is the easiest solution for the man, particularly for a king. He might not even have considered the possibility that Pandu was impotent. And Pandu might not have revealed it himself, nor Kunti. So Bheeshma goes ahead and gets Madri as a second wife for Pandu.
It also explains why Pandu left on a world conquest thirty nights after his wedding with Madri. The Mahabharata tells us it is exactly after thirty nights that he left on the conquest – and the words used are not thirty days, but thirty nights: the nights of a whole month. It must have been a terrible whole month for an impotent Pandu. He had now two gorgeous wives, each as beautiful as a goddess, and yet there was nothing he could do in their beds since he was impotent. A bitter, frustrated, furious Pandu gathers up his army and leaves on a world conquest. He had failed to prove his manhood in his bed, but he had to prove it somewhere, and now he could prove it in the battlefield. Pandu was savage in the battlefield, as we should expect him to be, the Mahabharata tells us. He does not just win battles, but ‘burns his rivals to ashes.’ He then comes back victorious bringing with him enormous wealth.
We all have a need to compensate for our failures. I remember an incident from my own life – I was young then, twenty-one. One day two of my friends swam across the Ganga in Rishikesh at a spot where the river is at its most dangerous, the current swiftest. They were not professional swimmers but young monks. And they swam across the Ganga without any kind of protection whatsoever. On a whim, they just decided to do it. And when I wanted to do what they had done, they told me not to, they had just narrowly escaped with their lives. And not only that, they warned me they would break off their friendship with me if I attempted it – they were afraid for my life. Eventually I decided to do something on my own – as an act of compensation. One night I walked into a lonely cremation ground, and spent an entire night all alone there. I hadn’t informed any one of this, not even my two friends. There was no human being in sight as I walked into the cremation ground. My only company was the silent mountains and the eternal song of the Ganga nearby, which made the eerie silence of the night even deeper, and the cold Himalayan wind whistling in my ears. The cremation ground had no keeper, no attendant. Remains of small fires burnt in one or two places. I had to prove me to myself and that is what I did.
Coming back to the Mahabharata, the epic uses a very unusual expression to describe the triumphant Pandu on his return to Hastinapura: punar-mudita-vāhanah. On this return journey to Hastinapura, ‘his vehicles were happy – once again’. That is to say Pandu was once again happy and even his vehicles, his horses, his elephants, all, reflected his happiness. The words ‘once again’ are significant: they speak of previous unhappiness. It was not a happy Pandu that had left on the conquest, but an unhappy one. Unhappy because he had failed to prove himself a man in his royal bed chamber. Happy because he had now proved himself a man in the battlefield. The bitterness, the frustration, the fury in him has been exhausted – at least for the time being.
Incidentally, I love the expression punar-mudita-vāhanah – what a beautiful way to describe the situation!
What happened next is also explained by the fact that he was impotent from the beginning. Pandu does not add the conquered wealth to the treasury of the Kuru-Bharatas, as we would expect him to have done. Instead he distributes it all among Bheeshma, Satyavati, Ambika, Ambalika, Vidura, his friends and so on. It is as though he wanted them all to see the amount of wealth he had won, the glory he had attained – and certify how much of a man he was. The wealth is so much that we are told Dhritarashtra later performed a hundred ashwamedha sacrifices with it.
Now he does one of the strangest things ever. Following the urging of his wives, he decides to leave the kingdom and go to the jungle with them, to live his life there engaged in hunting! Pandu is the ruler of Hastinapura, the long-awaited ruler, he has just taken over the reigns of the kingdom in his hands, he has proved himself to be competent as a king by successfully waging battles in a conquest of the directions, and immediately after that he decides to leave the kingdom behind and go and live in the jungle with his wives. And he has no motivation like what Ashoka later would feel post the Kalinga war.
His mother, among others, who, to bring him into this world so that the Kuru line would not come to an end and will have a legitimate ruler, had to submit herself to the abomination of a niyoga which she found repulsive and shrank away from with all her being, must have been shocked by Pandu’s decision.
Why did Pandu do something like that? A strong possibility that comes to mind is that he did not want Bheeshma to bring him yet another wife. He had no answer to the accusing glances of his mother and grandmother, and the man who had brought him up like a son – his uncle Bheeshma. Maybe others too questioned him, some in words and some by other means, enquiring when the baby princes were coming. As it happens in every family. He had no answer to them. He must have discussed this with his wives, from whom he could not have hidden the facts of the matter. They in their wisdom and understanding advised him to leave everything and go to the jungle and live with them there. No one would torment him there.
If Pandu had been impotent all along, then it is not because of the curse of the sage that he was forced to have his children begotten by other men. Is the story of the curse by the sage then not real? Did nothing like that ever take place? Is the story an attempt to cover up Pandu’s impotence from the beginning, to find an ‘acceptable’ reason for it?
Well, the entire story need not be a lie. But it looks like part of it is definitely a lie: the part that says that it is the curse of the sage who had changed himself into a deer that made it impossible for Pandu to have sexual relations with his wives. That part may be a later addition to the story of what Pandu actually did to the deer couple. What could have happened is that Pandu saw a male and a female deer in coitus in the jungle and shot them dead. Just that much.
But then why would, as we asked earlier, a cultured man like Pandu, a scion of the noble Bharata dynasty, do such a thing as that?
A possible answer is: for the same reasons as turned him impotent.
There is every reason to believe that Pandu’s impotence was psychological. Pandu was physically fit. He was a mighty warrior who was a terror to his enemies. Except for the paleness of his skin, there is no mention of any physical deficiency in him. And his death comes while engaged in an act of sex with his wife. All these point at his impotence having been psychological and not physical.
Are there then psychological reasons that could have caused impotence in Pandu?
Literature on the psychopathology of impotence tells us that while impotence may have physical causes in males over forty, it is almost always of psychological origin in males under forty; that psychopathological impotence may be associated with a very restrictive upbringing concerning sex, negative attitudes toward sex, negative or traumatic sexual experiences and other deep-seated causal factors such as unconscious feelings of hostility, fear, inadequacy, or guilt.
Could Pandu’s impotence have risen from any of these sources? To answer that question we will have to look into Pandu’s past – particularly into his early years as a child when he was most impressionable and into the years when he was an adolescent and his sexuality was blossoming. Unfortunately the Mahabharata gives us no details of these years and for that reason all that we can do is conjuncture about them.
As we all know, Pandu was the son born to Vyasa and Ambalika through the custom of niyoga. His mother had become a widow at the death of Prince Vichitraveerya. When he met with his early death due, according to the epic, to overindulgence in sex with his two wives, Ambika and Ambalika, he had produced no offspring. The illustrious line of the Kuru-Bharatas was now without a man qualified to sit on the throne on which such legendary kings as Manu, Puroorava, Nahusha, Yayati, Dushyanta, Bharata, Hastin, Ajameedha, Kuru, and Shantanu had sat, without a head to wear their proud crown.
Devavrata Bheeshma was there, of course, but he had taken the vow not to sit on the throne though he would stand by it. The Kurus were desperately in need of a prince.
It was Bheeshma whom Satyavati approached first – she must have felt that now that her father’s greed had come to naught and Bheeshma’s vows had been rendered meaningless by mighty time, he should take the reigns of the kingdom into his own hands to which they had originally belonged. Bheeshma refused – vows were vows and he would not break them, come what may. Perhaps it was the bitterness in him speaking, perhaps this is what had become of him because of that bitterness or maybe he had become really Bheeshma – the aura around his vows had imprisoned him in its awesome glare. Whatever the reason, Bheeshma decided his vow and himself were greater than the desperate need of the Kuru-Bharata empire and refused both to marry and beget children and to perform niyoga in Vichitraveerya’s ‘fields’ and produce offspring. Eventually Vyasa had to be called in and this other half-brother of Vichitra had to do the niyoga in spite of his reluctance.
The niyoga was not a happy incident for Pandu’s mother Ambalika just as it was not for her sister Ambika, Dhritarashtra’s mother, either. While in the case of Ambika she did not know it was the sage who would be performing the niyoga, in the case of Ambalika, she in all probability knew it would be the sage who would be coming to her. But in spite of that knowledge, when the sage entered her room and approached her bed, she was horrified and turned pale.
The act of conceiving Pandu was an act of indescribable horror and repugnance to his mother. So great was the repugnance and horror the sisters felt that they refused to undergo the torture a second time and when forced, sent a maid in their place. And after conceiving and giving birth to Pandu, Ambalika, like her sister after conceiving and giving birth to Dhritarashtra, withdrew into a shell from which she never came out.
It is unlikely that Pandu grew up without hearing palace rumors about his birth. In a place packed with maids and slaves as the palace of Hastinapura was, it is impossible that this did not happen to a child who had no father and was totally neglected by his mother. It should not surprise us if he had heard, or at least overheard, what happened in some graphic details. The incident involves niyoga, it involves sex between a young widowed princess and a sage and such stuff is ideal for gossip.
How a young sensitive mind would react to such talk he hears is impossible to predict and Pandu was definitely a very sensitive child and later a very sensitive man. In Pandu’s case it appears that the result was an unconscious horror of sex, for what he heard about his own mother. The images that the gossip he heard generated must have been played repeatedly over and over again in his mind, rendering him eventually psychologically impotent. It is not impossible that every time he approached one of his wives, the image of his mother, of the horrible experience she was subjected to, images of his mother’s horror and aversion at the moment of his conception, all rushed into his mind.
From the picture of him that the Mahabharata presents to us, Pandu appears to have been a man capable of great love, at least to begin with. As a child he must have loved his mother deeply, as is shown by his act of offering at her feet part of the wealth he had brought from the conquest. Listening to all those stories from palace gossip, stories that could have been very confusing to a child, he must have felt like countless other children that sex was something horrid that men did to women. It wouldn’t be surprising if he had felt he too had a share in subjecting his mother to that horrid act – partly because he was a male and partook of the crime of all males towards women and partly because his mother had to undergo it all for his sake, so that he could be born. The result would have been guilt – powerful guilt.
I wonder what Bheeshma’s effect on the child and adolescent Pandu could have been with regard to his sexual development. The Mahabharata tells us that it was Bheeshma who mostly brought him up. Here was a man who had become a legend in his own lifetime – more for denying sex to himself than for other things, though there certainly were other great achievements to his credit. The whole world looked up at him with awe. He had said no to women once and then, even when begged to break his vow, stuck to his vow. The Mahabharata does not tell us what his relations with Satyavati were – when Shantanu saw her and fell hopelessly in love with her, Devavrata had already been officially appointed the crown prince and what she had done was to snatch away from his head that crown of yuvaraja.
The Mahabharata does not tell us if he hated her for this, if he hated all women because of this. It is possible that he did, considering how adamantly he stuck to his vow of having nothing to do with women, though he was always perfectly gentlemanly and chivalrous in his behavior towards them. Perhaps his forcing Gandhari to marry his blind nephew Dhritarashtra and his capturing by force and bringing to Hastinapura the three Kashi princesses from their swayamvara hall speak of his contempt for women, though these actions were not very rare in his days. The vow that he would never fight a woman too speaks of his dislike and contempt for women.
Also relevant to our discussion is Bheeshma’s attitude towards women in general as expressed in a chapter in the Anushasana Parva [Ch 38], though it is possible that this discussion does not really represent Bheeshma’s views on women at all and is a philosophical discussion added later to the epic in his name. At the opening of this chapter, Yudhishthira tells Bheeshma that women are the root of all evil and it has been said that they are mean-minded. He then asks Bheeshma to tell him about the nature of women. In answer, Bheeshma quotes the answer the Apsara Panchachooda had given Narada who had asked her the same question. What follows is a downright condemnation of women. We are told that even pretty women with husbands, born in noble families, do not remain within bounds. Once they get an opportunity to meet outsiders, they do not bother even for husbands who are famous, rich and endowed with unparalleled handsomeness, even when these husbands do everything to please them. Women can give themselves to the greatest sinners, without feeling any shame about it. There is no man woman wouldn’t give themselves to – his age, his other conditions, nothing matters to them; all that is needed is that he be a male. He may be a deformed dwarf, it does not matter; he may be nauseatingly repulsive, that does not matter. All that matters to women is that he is male. And if men are not available to satisfy their lust, women will have no hesitation to seek sexual pleasure from other women. For, women are just never satiated sexually; with them it is as fire is never satiated with wood, the ocean is never satiated with rivers, death by consuming mortals.
Panchachooda has words to say about the nature of women which I am reluctant to quote here – so blunt and crude is she in her description of the evil that women are. Death, fierce storms, the evil world underground, massive all consuming conflagrations, the sharp edges of weapons, poison, fierce snakes – weigh all these against just woman on the other side and woman would be no less than all these terrors put together, says Panchachooda in words that Bheeshma approves of and quotes to Yudhishthira answering his question.
Years of almost single-handed upbringing by Bheeshma who held such views on women, upbringing by the man from whom a fishermaid had snatched away the throne of the crown prince of an empire that was already his because his father in his old age had contemptuously fallen in love with her, by the man who for the sake of his father’s lust for her had to take the terrible vow of life-long continence, by the man who had the very vicious and distasteful experience with Amba that eventually forced him to engage his own guru in a fierce battle, couldn’t have but left its marks on the tender soul of the growing child Pandu.
And if all this is not enough, consider the two references to his lineage Pandu makes immediately after killing the deer in coitus and feeling guilty about it: He says he is the son of the kamatma Vichitraveerya, the prince whose soul itself was lust, born to him in his kshetra, ‘field’, begotten by Vyasa.
What is the legacy of Vichitraveerya that Pandu considers himself an heir to? Lust. Lust that brought death. Lust in which Eros and Thanatos met. The adolescent Vichitra was so enamored by the two beautiful princesses whom his half-brother had brought for him that he spent his days and nights in a single passion – making love to them, which eventually lead to his death. Vichitra also brought with him the legacy of an old emperor’s lust for a young maid – Shantanu’s lust for the fishermaid Satyavati. And Satyavati herself is a product of lust. King Uparichara had gone to the jungle on a hunting trip rejecting his wife’s invitation to him to go to bed with her. She had made her desire known to him through a message she had sent him informing him she had just had her ritual bath after her monthly periods and was eagerly waiting for him in their bedchamber. In the jungle the king was unable to control his lust – all around him nature stood bathed in all her estrous glory, the mating calls of birds filled the air around him thick with the scent of passion. Satyavati was the child born to that king who had lost control over himself, born to an apsara living as a fish in the Yamuna according to the Mahabharata – in all probability a fishergirl who satisfied the king’s lust of the moment.
This is a legacy of lust – straight and unmixed with anything else. The other lineage he speaks of is perhaps more confusing. Vichitra’s biological father is Vyasa – born of sage Parashara’s lust for the fish-smelling Kali-Satyavati, lust that was unwilling to wait even so long as it takes for Kali and the sage to cross the river. Their union took place in the boat itself, right in the middle of the river. Vyasa brings in his blood the irrepressible lust of Parashara and of Uparichara Vasu. But at the same time, Vyasa is an ascetic too – a man who had his sexuality under control, though he too had slipped once, thus begetting his son Shuka. Pandu’s Vyasa lineage is thus both of lust and asceticism.
A very restrictive upbringing concerning sex, negative attitudes toward sex, negative or traumatic sexual experiences, though at second-hand, other deep-seated factors such as unconscious feelings of hostility, fear, and guilt… Pandu seems to have had his share of all these elements that cause psychopathological impotence – and a rich share of them at that.
In the Mahabharata, and in fewer details in the Ramayana, we have the story of Kalmashapada. Kalmashapada was an ancestor of Rama who had received a curse from his guru Vasishtha which transformed him into a Rakshasa. While living his accursed life as a Rakshasa, Kalmashapada meets a Brahman youth and his young wife in a forest. The couple were in the jungle making love and they had not yet completed their act when they saw the Rakshasa and ran away. Kalmashapada caught the brahmana, and the brahmani begged him not to eat him up. She told him of how she was in her ritu, how desperate they were for a child, how they hadn’t finished their mating act and therefore he should spare her husband. Kalmashapada did not heed her and went ahead and ate up the Brahmin youth. Angirasi, the brahmani, wept bitter tears – and so deep was her pain that as each drop of her tears fell on the ground, it became a blazing fire and burnt up the place.
The brahmani then cursed Kalmashapada. He had interrupted her and her husband making love and killed her husband. He would not be able to make love to his wife any more – if he ever made love to his wife during her ritu, the period sanctioned for lovemaking, he would die. Almost the identical curse as Pandu received and for almost identical reasons. It is this curse that made it impossible for Kalmashapada to have sex with his wife Madayanti and forced him to offer her to the sage Vasishtha for niyoga.
Like Kalmashapada, Pandu too carried a curse on him. His impotence was the result of that curse – but that curse was not given by Kimdama. Pandu was cursed long before he killed the deer. His curse was a result of his very restrictive upbringing concerning sex, his negative attitudes toward sex, the traumatic sexual experience of his mother the trauma of which he had internalized, unconscious feelings of sexual hostility, fear, guilt.
Do insights from psychology or psychopathology explain why Pandu killed the deer engaged in coitus? They do. Annals of criminology are full of crimes committed by men who have negative attitudes towards sex, have deep unconscious feelings of sexual hostility and guilt, have been forced to suppress or repress sex for one reason or other, have an unsatisfactory sexual life, whose natural sexual longings have remained unfulfilled. Lust killings, sex murder – these are terms used for acts like what Pandu did, though crime literature mostly talks about acts committed against humans.
Perhaps these insights would also explain his fury in the battlefields that made Pandu ‘reduce his enemies to ashes”, though this could be a very natural thing to do for a kshatriya and a prince in those days. But it is a fact that Pandu derived pleasure from killing – he devoted in entire life after the world conquest to hunting, which is something few other kings have done, if any.
Why did Pandu choose Arjuna’s birthday to take Madri into the quietude of the jungle and to make love to her there, meeting his death in the process? Why did he choose the precise moment when priests were chanting sacred incantations invoking divine blessings on Arjuna, the precise moment when brahmanas were being served a feast? Was Arjuna’s birthday no occasion for celebration for Pandu? Was he registering his protest against the celebration, and against Arjuna and Kunti, by walking away from the feast of which he was the host and hence shouldn’t have left? If so, what was he protesting against? The questions we had asked earlier.
For those who are not fully conversant with the Mahabharata, the epic says it was the uttara phalguna day on which Arjuna had completed fourteen years when the Brahmins were chanting mantras and a feast was being offered celebrating the birthday when Pandu took the beautiful Madri away into the jungle. When he should have been with his family, when he as the host had an important role to play and should have been receiving the Brahmins and joining them in the rituals and the feast, Pandu quietly slipped out of the place taking his younger wife with him. Kunti failed to notice this because she was busy serving the meals to the brahmanas.
Ancient Indian tradition forbade sex during the daytime.
The epic tells us he did so because he was overpowered by sex – kamamohita. He certainly could have been. But there is also another side to it – the day and time he chose speaks of other possibilities. He must have been frustrated. It is possible that in spite of his urging Kunti and later Madri to give him sons through niyoga, he really hated the niyogas and felt little affection for them. The niyogas must definitely have been humiliating for him, as being forced to offer his wife to other men for begetting children would be to any man. Yet he did it for the sake of his afterworlds, so that his ancestors did not blame him of not paying back the debt to the manes, pitr-rna, and maybe perhaps because the eldest of them could inherit the throne. But it is also possible that more than his desire for children it was his wives’ desire for them that impelled him, though the Mahabharata does not say so. Women’s longing for children is usually stronger than men’s – for while for man children are a need, for women it is the fulfillment of their being women. It is possible that in spite of what the epic tells us and contrary to what we are told by it, it was Kunti who was desperate for children rather than Pandu and it was she who persuaded him to allow her to have children by other men. Pandu could have resented this deeply, though he could not say no to the strong-willed Kunti, and later to Madri when she sought permission to walk on the path shown by Kunti.
That his children are not his children is not something that many men would be able to tolerate. So Pandu rejects the birthday celebrations, rejects the birthday child, rejects the mother of the birthday child, and goes to the jungle taking his ‘softer’ other wife to the jungle with him exactly when Brahmins are being served at home. And on that day, for the first time in his life, in the passion given by his bitterness and loneliness, his frustration and fury, he succeeds in making love to her there, surrounded by nature in estrus. His success must have surprised even him, filled him with unspeakable thrill, uncontrollable rapture. One moment he is deep in the abysses of bitterness and fury, and the next he is in the heavenly heights of the thrill of his first successful lovemaking. From those heights to which he had soared for the first time in his life, he plunges straight into his death.
There was years of bitterness in him. Suppressed day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, until Arjuna has completed fourteen years. And then, as the birthday celebration is going on, violence possesses him, and the explosion takes place.
Pandu is one of the most tragic figures in Indian literature. His is the tale of innocence punished for the crimes of others. He carries a curse with him – the burden of the knowledge of the story of his birth, of his lineage, which makes his life hell. Pandu’s life eloquently portrays how our life is not all in our hands, how so many factors beyond our control give it direction, something we are loath to admit today. Our past has a strong say in making us what we are, in making our life what it is – and that past includes our parents’ past too. We carry on our shoulders the burden, and the honor, of their actions.
Just as our children will do those of ours.
In the spiritual interpretation of the Mahabharata, Vyasa’s four sons are embodiments of the four purusharthas – goals of human life. Shuka is the embodiment of the paramapurushartha, of moksha, liberation; Vidura of dharma, righteousness; and Dhritarashtra of artha, wealth and possessiveness. Pandu, this interpretation tells us, is the embodiment of kama, desire. He is lust embodied.
Impotent kama, perhaps.
Or maybe perhaps Vyasa wants to tell us that kama is always impotent in the ultimate analysis, in spite of the fact all creation springs from it.
Impotent kama, insatiable kama. Kama that can never give us ultimate contentment.
Na jAtu kAmah kAmAnAm upabhogena shAmyate,
havishA krishnavartmeva bhooya evAbhivardhate.
Never indeed is kama satiated by the enjoyment of desired objects; instead, like fire when offerings are made into it, it keeps flaring up.
Until impotent desire consumes the desirer himself.