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.)