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Women in Mahabharata: Puppet, puppeteers, both, or more – Shakti Dhar

Ancient mythologies can be cited to make arguments for the victimization of women and also for the lost glory of the womanhood, in nearly the same examples. It makes for a very interesting observation how drastic the interpretations can switch with changes in narratives and narrators. 

Continuing with reading the fine prints in Mahabharata, let's look at the state of liberation of women as depicted here. 

Women liberation was not a movement or concern apparently. By default, men and women had their liberty and choices. Then came a scholar (Shwetketu) who wanted to know about his biological father, but his mother won't know. His father won't bother/mind the other male company his mother will indulge in, which only made him grow further unsettled. In the name of the rights of the child, and emotional health of the same, his prodding led to the law of 'Niyog' incorporated. This ensured that the child has a father, who is legally wedded/accepted husband of the woman, irrespective of the biological origins. Pandu narrates the whole episode to Madri in his final days.  Technically, this institutionalized the private property ownership clearly outlining how inheritance will come into play, as against the might is right being in force till then. However, this has had its consequences, and continues till date though disguised and morphed in several ways. 

However, this sort of inheritance didn't apply across the board. It was not applicable for Satyawati who had a son with Parashar Rishi and yet the child had no conflicts whatsoever in the society in terms of fitting in. Whereas, Kunti, who had a similar union resulting in a baby had to abandon her new-born. The piece of the puzzle lies in the society they belong to. Satyawati was in a society where community owned the resources. She was from a fishermen tribe. Kunti belonged to the regular royal/feudal/agriculturist clans where inheritance decided how property was passed down. So, Satyawati's liberty didn't really apply to Kunti's though they were separated by merely two generations. Their immediate societies made all the difference in their liberty and not the age/period/times. 

But we will be making a mistake if we restricted the concept of liberty to sexual and physical implications. Liberty is political largely, in my not-at-all humble opinion. Did women enjoy political liberty and influence? 

Mention of Mahabharata often brings up the cases of Draupadi and Gandhari, as symbols of women victimhood mainly. Though, Draupadi gets cited from a lot of things from victimhood to power player and the chief rabble rouser as well.

Also, beyond genders, when we look for names of protagonists and heroes in Mahabharata, we think of all kinds of names like Bhishma, Arjuna and of course, the Lord, Krishna. But that's only because of the abbreviated stories we have been brought up on. In statecraft and politics, the real power lies with the one who remains in the shadow. And all through Mahabharata, if there is one shadow that persists, it's of Kunti.

Hidden between the lines of Mahabharata story and narration is the love deprived upbringing of Pritha aka Kunti. How she longed for a mother, how she went out of her way to please someone like Durvasa who is just impossible to please, how her husband preferred another wife soon after letting her be on her own. And yet, Kunti didn't play the victim in any of this. She was never a victim. Madri was not a competition to her, rather an ally. Even Gandhari was not an enemy for her. When Mahabharata ended, Kunti went for Vanvaasa with Dhritrashtra and Gandhari. Devoid of any ill-will and jealousy, Kunti shared her secrets of divine communion with Madri, thereby getting 5 sons. Mahabharata is to do a lot with her foresight and wisdom in bringing up her sons amidst forever lurking threats and yet settle for nothing but the very well being of her clan.

She very well  knew these 5 sons of hers are no match to the 100 of Gandhari. She kept her sons rooted in values and still, taught them the nature of statecraft and wars, never letting them become complacent and entitled, and even going to unseen lengths to ensure there is an unbroken trust and camaraderie amongst Pandavas. There is one small incident that make her foresight so abundantly obvious. 

During their exile, Pandavas were staying at Ekchakranagar. And a turn of events led to one of them being sent as food for demon Bakasura. Kunti decreed that Bhima be sent, despite severe protests from Yudhishthira. In no uncertain terms, she tells Yudhishthira, she knows exactly what she is doing by seemingly risking Bhima's life. This was probably the only point where she exhibits her foresight and ambitions in unmistakable words. She tells Yudhishthira that by protecting a weak, a poor and a Brahmin, they will be performing the duties of the king. The step was a demonstration of their ambitions and a move to find allies and create foundations for their own rule.

Kunti's life is a series of mishaps and loss, deprivation and tumultuous adverse circumstances. And yet, there is not a place she is playing the victim or even the manipulator. She doesn't act with rancour or romanticism or misplaced love even. Even her steps to ensure a kingdom for her sons was not laced with personal ambitions. It appears she meant nothing more than the wellbeing of her sons. After the war, when her sons were the undisputed rulers, she didn't sit there to relish the fruits of her lifelong work, rather she went to live in a forest along with Vidura, Dhritrashtra and Gandhari. Her controlled negotiations and revelations with her own abandoned son, Karna, is heart breaking at so many levels and yet a lesson in the multi-faceted compromises of the householders. Duniyadari. She opens up with Karna, not like dam that breaks up, but like giving him a glimpse of the furnace within her. She doesn't lament in self-damning and guilt, rather makes a cold hearted brutal-on-self admission of her own cruelty and yet remains steadfastly focussed on the future, striking a best possible deal with Karna.   

The glorified heroes of Mahabharata that we know had a guiding force in the background. Disguised, and yet always present. This force ensured their rooting and helped them overcome their perceived weakness in numbers. As soon as Kunti disappeared from the scene, Pandavas didn't stay on top of their game for long. (But that's a story for another day). 

So, what she the puppeteer of Mahabharata OR what she a puppet of circumstances? 

Was she an exceptional woman or was she a woman that can be cited as an example of women from the era? 

As often, I don't have those answers. Yet. But we shall continue our reading between the lines. 

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