Imagining the Mahabharata’s Most Interesting Women
Where did they all disappear to after doing their part with babies and marriages and questioning their husbands?
Images: Raja Ravi Varma
I came to “myth lit” somewhat recently—imagine being a Beanie Baby collector in the mid-aughts, or still being JLo obsessed when the world had moved on to the Kardashians. I’ve never been particularly trendy though; if there is a pattern, it’s that I'm always late to the party. So, when I decided to write about the Mahabharata, I was joining a whole list of writers who had not only been there and done that, they'd even sold the movie rights. In a world full of retellings, how do you hold your own?
As a child, I swallowed these androcentric myths. But as an adult, some hesitant part of me kept going, “But how did she feel about it?” As I re-read the story (Ramesh Menon's version is an excellent, inspiring place to begin), I wondered where all the women disappeared to, after doing their part with babies and marriages and questioning their husbands at just the right time.
Women in India—my “target audience” as the marketing people in my publishing house would say—are rising up, unshackling where they were shackled, embracing loud voices and farts and feminism, even making said feminism trendy, putting it on tee shirts and bracelets and kohling their eyes so they blink up at you from Twitter DPs looking like fierce don't fuck with me raccoons. While I was thinking about these women, the ones from the past started beckoning to me as well. I suppose it was only a matter of time before I started thinking, “Why did Draupadi let herself be married to five men?” Or “Are there any caste implications to describing Bhima’s other wife as a rakshasi?”
I wondered why, even though this epic has been told to many open-mouthed children by devout grandmothers, its women have not been examined (much) from their perspective. I decided I’d retell the Mahabharata from the point of view of its women as young girls (that's my party pitch). The existing canon was already well-known enough that if I took a riff on it, everyone would understand what I was doing, but given the lack of surrounding material, it was easy for me to invent great swathes of backstory for my girls.
While this would have been considered “adult enough” by the standards of that time, I think some experiences may be seen as being universally applicable, to a teenager in 1500 BC or one in 2018 AD.
Your concerns might be a little different, but you might react the same way to an old man trying to seduce you; or, you might comply with your father wanting to marry you off to the highest bidder, but hold on to your own thoughts about it. Still, one of my biggest challenges is balancing this with placing them in their own milieu, and not letting my 21st-century view interfere.
I had to choose which stories to tell, and some are more fun than others. Satyavati—the matriarch of the Mahabharata at age 14—was my first “girl”; as I get into the series, there are others who especially appeal to me as potential heroines. When I first made a list, there were 12, but as I do more research, more characters emerge. These are my girls—some of them anyway:
Amba and her next life avatar, Shikhandini, are the subjects of the book I'm currently writing ( The One Who Had Two Lives), so they’re foremost in my mind. But I think I would have put them in any list of the mythic women you need to know about. The story in brief: Amba, the eldest of three sisters, is about to choose her own husband in a swayamvara when Bhishma swoops in and kidnaps all of them to take back to his half-brother as brides. (Another facet of this is that Amba's father didn't want to invite the half-brother—Satyavati’s son—to the ceremony because of his “low” birth, so hey, it all ties up in a really twisted way.)
As far as I know, this is the first example of a transman in an Indian epic.
Anyway, Amba tells Bhishma she wants to marry her prince. He releases her, but by then the prince's ego is all bruised, and he sulkily tells her, “Since Bhishma won you, you should just go back to him” which she does, because: not a lot of options for single women back then. Amba puts her pride in her pocket and begs Bhishma to marry her, but he's all, “Nope, I made a vow,” so she's stuck, husband-less and alone, which was really, really alone at that time.
Amba goes off into the forest and prays to be reborn as Bhishma’s killer. Surprise! She's born as Draupadi's sister , biologically, at least. However, her new dad, Drupada, really wanted a son, so he raises her as one. Right from the beginning, Shikhandini thinks of himself as Shikhandi, a man—so as far as I know, this is also the first example of a transman in an Indian epic. (The Mahabharata also says that her sex will eventually change to her “true gender”.) I think the whole story is fascinating: from the past-life perspective, to the fact that everyone seemed so accepting of Shikhandi in any form he wants to take. There are many versions of Amba’s story, and not a lot of literature around it. Since s/he was a minor-ish character, I'm going with this one.
Kunti might be a surprising choice since, for most of the epic, she's a boring mother who seems to always be lecturing her sons. She’s also the reason Draupadi married four other men—but I always found Kunti’s own origin story hugely interesting. For me, Kunti is arguably the first example of a woman having a sexual awakening. While Satyavati used her sexuality to get what she wanted—as a means to an end, as it were—Kunti was just curious about what sex felt like. Which is why, when she’s given the odd, mixed blessing of being able to call on whichever god she likes, to have sex with her, and she’s so aroused by this idea that she tries it out even though she’s supposed to remain a virgin until marriage.
Sidebar: I always thought it was a strange present to give a teenage girl, especially by a sage much older than her: “Here, have this mantra, and you will be able to command any god you like into your bedroom.”
Strange, but also somewhat revealing about the status of women then? The story suggests that Kunti had more agency than most of her peers.
First, Kunti calls on the sexiest god of them all; Surya was highly venerated, and also, who wouldn’t want to sleep with the sun? Then, she gets pregnant out of wedlock, making her the second girl of the Mahabharata to do so (Satyavati was the first.) But while Satyavati’s child absolves her of all guilt by growing up instantly and promising to come back when she needs him, everything I've read implies that Kunti has to not only conceal this pregnancy but also give birth alone, before she puts her baby in a basket and floats him down a river.
This is the price she had to pay for being adventurous: a baby who will never know his much-lauded brothers (the Pandavas, also half-gods), and a burden she carries to her dying day. Exploring the sexual curiosity of a teenage girl and then its consequences, is irresistible for me.
Okay, so everyone knows Bhima’s Great Love was supposedly Draupadi, but the wife that most suited him was the rakshasi, Hidimbi. In the myths, “rakshasas” are interchangeable with “cannibals” and I think it’s because the Mahabharata is a Kshatriya text written by Brahmins, so they look down upon a lot of other tribes who are essentially strangers to the original authors of the story. Stranger danger is a theme that runs through mythology, but it’s important to stress the caste aspect here, because the Mahabharata does go on and on about how superior the Kshatriyas are, an advert lasting more than a 1000 years.
But even if you take Hidimbi at face value: she’s a cannibal sent to lure the five brothers back to her brother, Hidimba, for his evening meal, but can’t go through with it because she falls so madly in love with one of them. Raised as a rakshasi in a forest, perhaps only knowing her brother (I haven’t read about a whole tribe of them being there), there’s a certain Flowers In The Attic appeal to Hidimbi’s story. Two siblings, outcasts from “civilisation”, existing in their own little world. I imagine Hidimba would have been a loving, kind brother, but I also imagine he would have wanted to preserve their world because it was the only one he knew.
Perhaps they weren’t really cannibals, just misunderstood because they chose to live by themselves. More than anything, Hidimbi and Hidimba remind me of the unfortunate siblings who lived in the heart of Delhi’s Ridge Forest for so many years. Feral children, one who wants to stay the way he is, the other who wants to break free.
I think Hidimbi will probably be the oldest of all my girls, already a woman when she encounters Bhima, but always a little shy and stunted thanks to her early years alone. She takes it upon herself to marry Bhima, who doesn’t come off well in this story because he tells her he’s going to take off as soon as she has a kid. She can’t help but agree, and eventually their son goes off to help his absent father wage war.
But perhaps Hidimbi would have clung to—even cherished—her independence. In my story, I could follow the bit the canon doesn’t tell you, how maybe Hidimbi goes back to live in the forest, embracing being fully and completely herself.
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