The permissiveness of ancient Indian society and their ultra-liberal view on sexual relationships is breathtaking. Nowhere is this better depicted than in the Mahabharata, the greatest epic ever written. Writing in these columns on the katha tradition (January 11, 2006), I had referred to the Mahabharata as “supreme itihaas” and unparalleled “kavya”. It is at once incomparable philosophy and a unique confrontation with ethical dilemmas. It is an encyclopaedic edifice to which poets, acharyas and thinkers brought their diverse offerings, making it a rare meeting ground of different traditions, styles and viewpoints.
Today, I turn to the liberality in the Mahabharata on relationships between the sexes. This is seen right from the origin of its author and of the Pandava/Kaurav clans. The preface starts with Queen Girika asking King Uparichara to make love. The king leaves without doing so, but is so consumed by passion that he ejaculates on a leaf in the forest, which he then sends to his queen through a falcon. The seed drops mid-flight and impregnates apsara-fish Adrika, who gives birth to a son and a daughter. The king keeps the son and a fisherman keeps the daughter, Satyavati. The celibate Parashara is so besotted with Satyavati that he makes love to her in a boat, and of the union is born Ved Vyasa. Parashara blesses Satyavati, saying that that her son would be the “greatest poet the world has ever known”.
Shantanu, the 14th Kuru king, is mesmerised by Ganga, whom he marries, but undertakes never to question. Their physical love is so overpowering that Ganga becomes pregnant seven times in seven years. But she drowns each of her children. Shantanu is distraught but does not question her. When he finally does, she tells him of the curse on her and leaves Shantanu, taking with her their eighth child, Vasu Prabhasa. She promises him that Prabhasa would return after 16 years to rule the Kurus. It’s again Shantanu’s uncontrollable sexual urge that leads him to marry Satyavati. His “old and mighty illness, love” leads him to promise Satyavati that only her children would rule the empire. This is fulfilled by his son, Devvrata, who takes a vow that not only would he not claim the kingdom, but he would also never marry and remain celibate all his life. It’s this sacrifice that makes Devvrata Bheeshma.
Abduction of princesses from swayamvaras is frequently practised and accepted as ‘gandharva vivah’. Bheeshma abducts Amba, Ambika and Ambalika for Satyavati’s son. Amba, unable to marry her beloved, seeks union with Bheeshma and her rage at being spurned leads to her rebirth as Shikhandin. Then, in the first sex-change of the ancient ages, she is converted into the male Shikhandi by a yaksha. There are graphic depictions of group love-making between Satyavati’s son and his two queens. When he dies issueless, both Satyavati and Bheeshma openly apply the apparently established “ancient custom, allowing a brahmana to be called to sire sons” from the two young widows to ensure continuity of the family line. Satyavati entrusts this task to her son, Veda Vyasa. Mahabharata describes in minute detail hours of lovemaking on successive nights between Vyasa and the queens. Since Ambika closes her eyes in fright, blind Dhritrashtra is her offspring and since Ambalika is ashen-faced at the sight of Vyasa, pale albino Pandu is born of her. Vyasa also has a sexual encounter with an unnamed maid, which leads to the wise Vidur’s birth.
The concept of immaculate conception and giving birth without a nine-month pregnancy is typified by Kunti. A rishi and his wife decide to copulate in an open forest and turn into a stag and a hind for the purpose. Pandu kills them while they are in the act and is cursed that he would die the moment he made love to anyone. So, Pandu lets his wife Kunti practise “immaculate conception” with the gods, giving rise to Yudhishthir (with Dharmaraja), Bheema (Vayu) and Arjuna (Indra). Polygamy is common and Pandu’s second wife, Madri, seeks the same benefits.
Vyasa created Gandhari’s 100 sons from the foetal pulp disgorged by her. Pandu died because he could not control his libido on seeing Madri naked. Masturbation, as practised by Muni Gautam’s celibate son Sharadwan, leads to the birth of the twins Kripa and Kripi. Having been won by Arjuna in an archery contest, all five Pandava brothers share Draupadi, since Kunti had unknowingly said “all of you share the alms you have got”. But Mahabharata describes in detail how all five brothers desired Draupadi and how she desired each of them. Polyandry was thus equally acceptable.
Arjuna’s escapades while away from Draupadi included passionate lovemaking with the snake woman Ulupi, who practised pre-marital sex, and his active pursuit and eventual elopement with Krishna’s half-sister and his own cousin, Subhadra. After her initial anger, Draupadi welcomes them both and even makes love to Arjuna. Incidentally, this also recognises marriage between cousins.
Such examples are endless. The approach to these issues 5,000 years ago is truly mind-boggling.
Abhishek Singhvi is MP, National Spokesperson, Congress, and Senior Advocate.