Kunti, mother of the Pandava brothers, refused to get inseminated by brahmins Photograph: (Others)
In a society still riddled with caste and gender fault-lines, India needs to talk about the subversive lives of Sanjaya and Kunti
In a no-punches-pulled analysis of the resurgence of Bharatiyata in the portals of education, Pratap Bhanu Mehta makes a strong case for a “genuine indigenisation that embraces all.” Mehta’s impassioned plea “Bring on indigenisation: A deep exposure to Indian culture might actually cure the custodians of Indian culture of prudishness, machismo and homophobia” is born out of his acquaintance with Indic traditions of thought that still have the ability to surprise us.
Mahabharata, an ancient Indic epic, narrating the Kurukshetra War fought between the two branches of the same family tree, may come in handy in this project of genuine indigenisation. The epic is hailed as a repository of all knowledge: what doesn't exist in the Mahabharata isn't worth knowing. The epic posits itself not only as itihaas (history) but also as the fifth Veda. The veracity of such a claim cannot pass without scrutiny, yet we set it aside for a while. What exists in the Mahabharata is enough for us.
In a recently concluded international conference organised by the University of Delhi on the transmissions, adaptations, performances, and histories of the Mahabharata, the epic was brought alive by scholarly papers and artistic performances. The epic continues to be a living and breathing presence for its ancient wisdom still remains relevant.
The Mahabharata, is seen as a treatise on the right way of living, which, mind you, may not always be in sync with the normative. The epic cleverly subverts some of the unquestioningly accepted social rubrics. Caste and gender relations today may be revolutionised if these subversions are understood by those who swear by “tradition.”
The sutas of the Mahabharata are in the centre of one such subversion. As Naina Dayal notes in her research, the sutas exist primarily as charioteers or minstrels in the epic: marginalised in a brahmanical social order. What sets the sutas apart, however, is their aspiration for upward caste mobility through knowledge. Seen to be born out of misalliances between Brahmans and Kshatriyas, the sutas command respect due to their knowledge.
Sanjaya, the personal narrator of the Kurukshetra war for the blind king Dhritrashtra is one such example. The bigger question, however, arises: does caste still remain an accident of birth? Isn’t Sanjaya actually becoming a Brahmin, conveyor of universal principles, by narrating the war that birthed the Bhagvadgita? He is, after all, the first person to be exposed to Krishna’s wisdom apart from Arjuna. Does he not carry within him ‘brahman,’ the ultimate Truth, like a Brahmin?
It may be argued that Sanjaya’s high status, as noted by Romila Thapar, despite his birth ends up bolstering the brahmanical social order, where Brahmin remains the coveted caste. He, however, brings the word Brahmin closer to its etymological roots and seems to posit the possibility of caste fluidity, much like in the case of the Brahmin warrior, Parashurama.
Linked with Parashurama is the genesis of surrogacy. Historian Smita Sahgal in her project on ‘Niyoga,’ a practice of commissioned procreation proposes how because of Parashurama’s avowed enmity with the Kshatriyas, women of the warrior caste sought sexual alliances with Brahmins to protect their clan. The progeny would thus be spared the warrior sage’s ire.
Niyoga can easily be perceived as another way of establishing Brahminical hegemony. Only, there are women like Kunti in the Mahabharata who stand opposed to it. Kunti, whose sons are born out of alliances outside the wedlock duly sanctioned by an impotent husband, does not take the seeds of the Brahmins. Sahgal’s historical research on the subject shows how “god” becomes a clever substitute for referring to a man, likely belonging to a lower caste, who can’t be socially acknowledged as the biological father.
Were the Pandavas, then, fathered by lower caste/class men who Kunti chose but could not acknowledge? Is this the real reason Duryodhan ridicules Pandavas’ niyoga birth while summarily rejecting their claim on the empire? Duryodhan’s father Dhritrashtra, too, was born out of a niyoga alliance but it operated within the caste parameters that Kunti, perhaps, rejected.
In a society still riddled with caste and gender fault-lines, we need the examples of Sanjaya and Kunti to be spoken about more. The Indic classical texts are full of characters that may not have exhibited in-your-face rebelliousness but established norms that went against the tide. It is noteworthy that a large measure of interest in Kunti’s character is built around her pre-marital motherhood and the infant Karna’s subsequent abandonment. Her choice of rejecting the Brahmins, however, is an act of greater degree of courage.
So yes, resurrect Hinduism by all means. But let us think beyond cows and temples.