Monday, October 16, 2006

Astonishing births in the Mahabharata, and other stories

Lesson 2 from Vyasa’s great epic: boast about your origins, no matter what.
Drona began, “As you may know, O Bheeshma, the Rishi Bharadvaja was my father and my mother was a river-shell (sic). And for my exceptional birth, I am called Drona.”
[Clarification: Bharadvaja, out meditating by the river, sees the naked Apsara Ghritachi and ejaculates into a drana or a pot. Hence the name given to the resultant child. In this case, the pot or vessel might have been a river-shell. No one looked too closely.]

The Mahabharata is full of such strange and wondrous births, but what I like best is how the characters thus born are always very eager to relate the full story of their conception to strangers. Their narrations are marked by a sense of pride and often by grandiloquent language (“As you may know, O Bheeshma…”). This proves yet again that people were much cooler about these things back in the Dwapara Yuga. (When was the last time you heard of such candour in our own nefarious times? Imagine the progeny of a sperm donor conversationally telling his classmates during tiffin-break: “You want to know how I came about? Well, my dad took this stack of Penthouse magazines into a little room and made out with a cup…”)

Anyway, a short sample of some other astonishing births mentioned in the epic:

Drona’s wife Kripi: her pedigree was no less than her revered husband’s. Apparently, bathing Apsaras were quite the rage around Hastinapura at the time, and the Muni Sharadwan was strolling along a river’s bank when he espied one such. As Ramesh Menon delicately puts it in his translation:
Sharadwan had been celibate for a century, and he was a master of himself. But on that day the unexpected sight of the naked nymph unmanned him and he spent his seed into a clump of river-reeds…Just a day later two infants of unearthly splendour lay crying lustily in the bed of reeds…they were named Kripa and Kripi.
Jarasandha: a hermit gave King Brihadratha a mango and said, "Feed this to your queen and she will bear you a son.” But Brihadratha had two wives, so he cut the fruit in half and gave a piece to each of them. He didn’t want either to feel deprived, and besides he was hoping for a threesome that night (the mango alone wouldn’t do the trick, natural conception also had to happen).

Alas, each queen went on to deliver half a child. The palace maids left the two bundles at the edge of the jungle, a rakshasi named Jara came along and pressed the halves together, and the child miraculously came alive. Hence Jarasandha, which means “joined by Jara”. (He was unjoined by Bheema subsequently in the epic.)

Shishupala: here’s a rare example of a character who wasn’t proud of his Exceptional Birth. In fact, the story of Shishupala’s birth had to be narrated to a large sabha of kings by the great Bheeshma himself.
His deep voice filling the Yagnashala, Bheeshma began: “Shishupala, you were not born an ordinary child. You came into the world with three eyes and four arms. You were a freak, and we heard about you in Hastinapura. You brayed like a little donkey, like demons do when they take human form. But when your father thought of killing you, a disembodied voice spoke to him, telling him to keep and raise you.”
Okay, enough of this. The moral conundrum of the week was faced by a colleague who told me she had read Roberto Calasso’s Ka and been greatly disturbed by (among other passages) the description of the 40-day copula-thon between Shiva and Parvati. (She wasn’t explicit about this, but I got the drift.) Her question: “It makes you wonder what the point is of praying to these Gods. I mean, how are they in any way different or superior to us?”

I had no answer to give her. I don’t wear my irreligiousness like a badge or make fun of the sentiments of religious people, otherwise I would have pointed out that no mere human has ever been known to copulate for 40 straight days, and that this alone might be good reason to worship these celestial beings. As it was, I muttered something vague like “strange and unknowable are the ways of the Divine”, and then fled. (This is another reason why it’s convenient for me to go to office just once or twice a week.)

29 comments:

  1. In regards to the 40-day copulathon, obviously you haven't heard of me. A-thangyuouverymuch.

    Jai, keep doing stuff like this.

    I thought you'd be interested in reading about the ashwamedha entry on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashwamedha
    and the interesting discussion that has been going on behind the scenes.
    Apparently there is some debate as to whether the ashwamedha involved bestiality and necrophilia or only simulated bestiality.

    ReplyDelete
  2. 40 days? Really? Finally, a reason to respect the Gods (one wonders if the blue in Shiva's throat has anything to do with Viagra overdoses).

    And here I was thinking the week long sex between Enkidu and Shamhat in the Epic of Gilgamesh was impressive.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Fascinating.

    Lent involves 40 days of abstinence but Shiv and Parvati get it on for 40 days?

    Hinduism so wins.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Finally, I understand the true meaning of "having a religious experience".
    And how about 'em rishi-munis engaging freely with seashells & river-weeds... such a delightful new dimension to the whole man-living-in-harmony-with-nature business

    ReplyDelete
  5. Re: Falstaff's entry:

    Talking about Shiva, there is this story of Shiva masturbating - or something along those lines - and Brahma walking in on the act. Now, for some reason or the other, if Shiva's sperm were to hit the earth, there would be calamity. He would become extremely angry at any rate at all that valuable sperm going to waste. So Brahma leans forward at the last moment and takes it all in his mouth.

    Now, all this is a bit porn-y, but there you are.

    And all the gay-ness is surely another reason to love the gods.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Your Ka-reading friend should understand that we might love these Gods precisely because they're like us.
    The religious/secular divide in India is pointless for this reason too. The scriptures are most worldly, even crudely so. Good for us!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Awesome post... :)

    40 days... huh? Wow.. no wonder they're Gods... :)

    ReplyDelete
  8. By all means a highly enjoyable post.“strange and unknowable are the ways of the Divine”, - ROTFLAO

    Jai,more such posts please ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  9. Enjoyed the post--and having read KA--I have to say that I thought he is a master storyteller and though it was about hindu mythology--there were no religious connotations or undertones which was also refreshing !!!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Shamya: Dude, that's another story you're talking about - where the Gods interrupt Shiva and Parvati's sexathon and he opens the door to receive them and his "seed" starts spilling. Agni jumps forward and takes it in his mouth, because otherwise the universe would end. Then he has to be carried writhing all the way down the mountain because the seed is burning his throat. I mentioned that story in the Roberto Calasso post, here.

    Maybe there's a Brahma variant on it in some other purana...

    ReplyDelete
  11. No you're right, Jabs. It was definitely Agni. Brahma couldn't have done it, could he? And apologies to everyone I might have offended by saying the mighty Mahadev was masturbating. It was sex...

    What happened to Agni after that?

    ReplyDelete
  12. So much documented about godly spilling-of-seed... any similar stories about celestial females experiencing the joy of sex? I'm curious...

    ReplyDelete
  13. Pickup an english version translation of the book Parva by s. l. bhryappa, and u will hear more "realistic" birth process.

    But they are stunning :)

    S

    ReplyDelete
  14. this was a very lovely post!! " but what I like best is how the characters thus born are always very eager to relate the full story of their conception to strangers." LOL!! keep it up man!! hav u ever mentioned how dhitarashtra, pandu and vibhishan were born..?

    ReplyDelete
  15. hav u ever mentioned how dhitarashtra, pandu and vibhishan were born..?

    You mean Vidura? Ya well, those are entertaining too (Vyasa servicing three women, one of whom turns pale, the other closes her eyes and so on) but at least they involve normal sex and straightforward birthing processes...

    ReplyDelete
  16. o yes vidura ... but what i find amazing is the ease by which this "servicing" as u put it is glossed over by the chopras and assorted serial-makers.

    i mean isn't it cool that the king brings in a sage to fool around wit his wives and the sage enjoys it so much that he even fools around wit the maid ..

    ReplyDelete
  17. Well, actually it's the king's mother (Satyavati) who brings in her bastard son to service her widowed daughters-in-law (the wives of another son, who died before having any children). Meanwhile the true heir to the throne (Bheeshma), having long since relinquished his rights to kinghood, can only stand outside the bedchamber in frustration and wait for results...

    ReplyDelete
  18. Well, I am even wondering why I am commenting on this post. In any case I think people who are historians/literature experts...or whoever it is who unearths these "realities" from the epics is really losing focus on what the epic wants to convey.
    The epic was written to appeal to the sensibilities of the people existing then and convey some meaningful lessons as it goes along. If nitpicking is what gives these folks the big "kick" in their lives then they are not adding too much value except for cheap thrills.

    ReplyDelete
  19. :D

    Strange are the births in mythology!

    You missed the birth of Dhritaraashtra, Paandu and Vidhur... the way I like to translate that story is: Vyasa after writing the long tale, midway turned very horny and wanted to leave his mark in the tale he was writing (what today programmers call Easter eggs) so he brought the story to a stalemate where Satyavati would call him to seed the princesses. And lo behold, Vyasa uses 'divya dhrishti' to impregnate them! And depending on how their faces contorted mid-coitus or mid-orgasm, the child bore those characteristics... But his abstinence had made him so horny that he even took the daasi that came his way after the two princesses.

    (ok, ok... apologies to all devout hindus, but somehow i really can't help but laugh)

    ReplyDelete
  20. Anonymous: that's a very profound comment, especially the first line. Who knows why any of us ever does anything? I write a post because it was ordained by Brahma a million years ago that I must. Likewise, you comment because it is in your destiny to do so. Neither of us is a creature of free will, we're just amoeba floating about a meaningless universe, much as our slimy ancestors once did in the primordial pools of life (oops sorry, that's the Darwin version, not the Vedic one!)

    ReplyDelete
  21. Mythology is the word. To take it literally to poke fun at Hinduism is a bit sick, don't you think? Anyway, try doing this with stories connected to other religions and let's watch the fun

    ReplyDelete
  22. To an extent poking fun at Hindusim while may not be sick is also not very healthy. I agree that Hindusim as a religion is tolerant and all encompassing still there is no need to stretch the creative licence very far.

    Of course the post is good fun , but it also reminds us that the very fact that Hindusim can enjoy jokes on its behalf makes it a great religion. Not for a minute am I commenting on the merits of religions , just mentioning the tolerance exhibited by different religions.

    Also since most religions are governed by their clergy , Hinduism :{while having its shares of Pandas} is not dependent on its religious mores on them.

    ReplyDelete
  23. u know wht I love abt being a hindu? we can really trip on our gods and nobody issues any fatwas on us...loving it..

    40 days? thts nothing...whts so great abt continous sex for so many days? I havent had sex for close to 2 years...beat that! :)

    ReplyDelete
  24. According to Mahabharata (the way I know it), Vedvyas was a really ugly person. Therefore the queens Ambika et all sent their maid who was so awestruck by the sage bore Vidur, the wise. The queens on the other hand turned pale (giving birth to Pandu, as in pale skinned) and shut eyes (giving birth to Drithrashtra the blind.

    Equally notaworthy has been the story of Shikhandi, with the interpretation by Ruth Vanitha and Saleem Kidwai's in their Same Sex Love in India.

    ReplyDelete
  25. There is a book " A Jewel in the lotus". This book explores a lot fascinating trivia about gods and their escapades. I had read it long time ago in my college and was so popular that it was reduced to bits. If u guys really love reading astonishing births..., i would definetly recommend it. If someone can find an e-book version of the book just post it over here.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Well, this is mythology. Hinduism allows it's creative writers of 2,000 years ago to use religious icons to as symbols in their stories.

    This is completely different from Hindu spirituality, where clear connection with Brohmo (God) is established. Hinduism (& indic faiths) is the only religion to have established this.

    Later religions like Xtianity and Islam had their mythologies too, perhaps not as elaborate as the earlier Greeks & Hindus.

    For. e.g., the whole Koran is nothing but a glorified (& poor peice) of mythology. The problem is, unlike Hinduism, these faiths have no spirituality at all.

    Just proclamations to mass murder and live in a society of paleolithic troglodytes.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Secular Hindoos risk losing their good Karma in one birth. Crude sexuality, whether in word, thought or deed, is equivalent to cow killing.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Quoting: You mean Vidura? Ya well, those are entertaining too (Vyasa servicing three women, one of whom turns pale, the other closes her eyes and so on) but at least they involve normal sex and straightforward birthing processes..

    Well the Chopras' version doesnt really convey that Vyasa 'Services' the widows and their made. There is not even a remote reference to sex. Vyasa is shown looking at the queens/maid in the eye.
    I found the episode really amazing The fact that people were so cool about having children outside of marriage. Or could it be possible that people in those times were so technologically advanced that used IVF techniques?

    ReplyDelete
  29. you do know that in Hinduism, all of the "different Gods" and goddesses are aspects of one divinity (Brahman) in different forms. So people, don't take the stories LITERALLY, please.

    ReplyDelete