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Saturday, February 17, 2018

About Women – Maha Bharatha Series 63

I have repeated several times that Book 12 and 13 of Maha Bharata are quite suspect as to their author(s). I forgot to add one more reason – Chapter 12 is unusually long; longer than all other chapters. There are repetitions. It appears that someone inserted passages to make sure Brahmins were placed and maintained at the top of the social pyramid, make people practice some activities in a particular prescribed way and keep women subjugated . There are passages to this effect in Book 13 in Sections 30-33.

Some other interesting facts are buried in there too. For example, there is a list of sages who were following various modes of life and had questionable histories in their past. Durvasa was known for his anger. Gautama was as soft “as a piece of cotton”. Agastya was cunning. Uddalaka was in agriculture and Upamanyu was herding cattle. Valmiki was a thief in his former life and Viswamitra stole when he was very hungry. Narada fomented quarrels and Bharata was an actor and dancer.

In section 37, there is discussion on giving gifts. It says that the recipient should be worthy of the gift and also that the “gift itself should not suffer”. What does that mean? (Is it about animals being gifted? Does it also apply to daughters given in marriage?)

From Section 38 onwards, there are discussions about women which make me cringe. Given the high morals and ethics taught in the Maha Bharatha, how did passages so derogatory of all of womankind  get in? Maha Bharata must have been well-established by the time these passages were inserted. The authors knew that people will consume any passage in this section as sacred and not to be violated. Why not? We do the same thing now creating false and fake news! And now we can spread them even faster!

After my critical editorial, let me get to the actual episode. Yudhishtra asks Bhishma to talk about women. He says: “Women are said to be the root of all evil. They are frail and unreliable. Please tell me more. If that is true, why do men still wish to relate to women?”. Bhishma answers with a story of a conversation between Narada and an Apsaras (divine damsel), named Panchachuda.

Narada asks Panchachuda to instruct him on the disposition of women. Her first two responses are: “If I know I will answer your question” and “I cannot speak ill of women since I am a woman myself”.   Narada says “but there is no sin if you tell the truth”.  In response, the litany of negative points Panchachuda makes about women is devastating.

“Women” as told by Panchachuda “ like to transgress restraints placed on them. They are the roots of all the faults of men. Given an opportunity they go after other men; any man even ugly ones and idiots. They tend to betray men who seek them and ready to serve them. It is only their fear of what others will say that keeps them chaste. Fear of sin, compassion and wealth do not keep them faithful to their men. They are jealous of women who are younger, have more ornaments and wealth and free. They are restless and hanker after new companion always. They are as unfathomable as deep philosophical thoughts. Union with women is akin to hell, fire, prison and death. They are made to be so from the moment the Creator made them”.

Yudhishtra asks: “ If women are so wicked and cannot be controlled, why are men attracted to them so much? How can men truly keep them in check and “protect” them”?  Bhishma makes his own list of the wicked qualities he sees in women and says that preventing women (protecting them) from being sinful is impossible. He then tells a story of one Vipula who protects the beautiful wife of a Rishi by entering into her through yogic powers and preventing her from yielding to her own nature. Bhishma says that this was the only time a woman was “protected” by a man.

To be fair, some nice things are also said about women in Section 46. It says that women should be well-taken care of, they are sources of family honor and happiness etc. But, it also sounds condescending. It is said not because taking care of women is the right thing to do, but because sons born of them are important (needed) for performing sacrifices! 
 As I have written elsewhere, men in those days believed that the "seed" with everything needed to make a baby was in man alone and the woman only provided “the field”. Given the knowledge at that time, it is understandable; but why did they forget the most important teaching of the Vedas that Brahman is in every human being and therefore every man AND woman are sacred. Why did some of them think that this applies just to men?

This kind of problems is seen in all sacred texts, in all religions. They contain noble statements and also some beliefs and practices which make no sense.  Members of later generations pick and choose statements which support their point of view. Obviously, many of the horrible statements in Mahabharata about women and how to treat them still resonate with some. They believe that their position is supported by words from Bhishma himself!

But, then I am picking and choosing too, in my own way. I want to keep statements which will be considered virtuous at any point in history and at any time, at any place. I reject statements which make no sense or unjust, even if they made sense at one time. I reject them even if they are from Bishma’s mouth or Krishna’s mouth. But people  who are purists and think that every word in these books are sacred would insist that they be followed literally even if they make no sense or unfair to some.

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