Thursday, May 22, 2008


In Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata Satyavati entered the narrative as unobtrusively as she disappeared from it. She was a princess who was destined to ferry people across the river Ganga. For free – how could a princess collect money from ordinary people as payment for a job done?

Later Satyavati told her story to the Kaurava queens Ambika and Ambalika. She was the daughter of the king Dasa, but only formally. She was born of someone else, but her mother never told her who he was. She couldn’t get a child from her husband, and deeply concerned about that, she entered into secret relationships in an effort to have one. At one stage she became so desperate that she went for forbidden union. When Satyavati was twelve years of age, her mother told her that she had got her through immoral relationships, and asked her to ferry people across Ganga. Her father concurred and told her that she should do her work happily and not take any money from anyone. It is not clear why her parents assigned such a job to her; was it because they thought that such selfless service would wash away the impurities associated with her birth?

The sinful ways of Satyavati’s mother remained no secret; as a consequence, no prince came to marry her. She happily kept doing the job assigned to her. One day the sage Pareswara (Parashar, in other versions) came to be ferried. Smitten by the grace and the beauty of the girl, Pareswara insisted that she ferried him alone. Unaware of the sage’s intentions, she asked the other people to get off the boat, and set off with the sage. In the middle of the river he told her his intentions. She objected; she was still a girl, it was daytime when sex was not allowed, etc. With his mantra she attained her womanhood at once, and with his blessings, she acquired a body odour that filled the surroundings with a sweet fragrance, and with his special powers he created a thick mist in the summer month Vaishakh which the sunrays could not penetrate. From their union was born a son, who, right on his birth, gave evidence of his exceptionally high spiritual state. The fond father named this dark complexioned child Vyasa. When Satyavati’s father heard about all this, he gave her in marriage to the sage.

In Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata Satyavati entered the Santanu story when, apprehensive that his wife Ganga would harm his children, he left in her care his sons Chitravirya (Chitrangada of the classical text) and Vichitravirya, not born of a woman’s womb. In Sarala’s narrative, Satyavati was not directly related to Santanu. She got related to the family when she became the foster-mother of his children. When Ganga discovered that Chitravirya and Vichitravirya were Santanu’s children, she cursed them to die issueless.

After Ganga left him, Santanu did not marry. After his elder brothers, Chitravirya and Vichitravirya, got married to princesses Ambika and Ambalika respectively, it was Bhishma’s turn. He chose Amba, the sister of Ambika and Ambalika. On the appointed day, he wore the bridegroom’s dress and was about to start for Amba’s place when he noticed tears in his father’s eyes. As he learnt about his mother Ganga’s curse on Santanu that his son would kill his father, he decided not to marry. Satyavati did not figure anywhere in these happenings.

She came into the picture when Chitravirya and Vichitravirya died issueless, and at Pareswara’s behest she went to Ambika and Ambalika to persuade them to have an issue from Vyasa to continue the family. But she was unsure of the desirability of such an arrangement; after all, Vyasa was the widows’ elder brother-in-law, and union of the elder brother and the wife of the younger brother was prohibited in the code. They also told her clearly that if they had to have a son from outside of the marriage, then it should be from Bhishma, their younger brother-in-law. Satyavati went to Bhishma, but she failed to persuade him to beget a son with the widows. He told her that he was committed to bachelorhood. Then she went to Vyasa, who was reluctant in the beginning, but eventually gave his consent to the arrangement.

Satyavati could finally persuade her unwilling daughters-in-law to agree to her proposal. If this involved sin, it would accrue to her, she told them. She also told them about the circumstances of her birth to impress upon them the extent women went to in order to have an issue.

Ambika died giving birth to a blind child, who was named Dhritarashtra. Satyavati then went to Ambalika and asked her to get a child from Vyasa. She tried to exploit her sense of jealousy towards her sister, natural among siblings, by saying that since Ambika had a son, she should have one too. She also told her that since her sister’s son was blind, it would be her son who would become king. Ambalika agreed, and she had a son, Pandu, from Vyasa. But she felt very sinful on account of her union with the sage, and unable to carry her burden of sin, one day she drowned herself in the Ganga.

Vichitravirya had another wife, Ambuvati, whose father was the sudra king of Harikeshara. Ambuvati had served Satyavati well, and she was highly pleased with her. She realized that Ambuvati was unhappy because she was issueless whereas the other wives of the deceased kings had given birth to sons. So she asked Vyasa to oblige her. Ambuvati had a son from him, who Vyasa named Vidura.

Satyavati’s part in the destiny of the Kaurava family more or less came to an end here. She appeared in the narrative much later. With her husband Pareswara, and the Kaurava royals such as Bhishma and Pandu, she had gone for a holy dip in the Ganga on an auspicious occasion, where she met Kunti and her parents. She was pleased with the girl. At Pareswara’s suggestion, Kuntibhoja, Kunti’s father, gave her in marriage to the Kaurava prince Pandu. Then Satyavati faded away from the narrative. She was not there to comfort the widowed Kunti and her sons when she returned to the palace after the death Pandu and his second wife Madri. She was not there to welcome either Duryodhana’s wife Bhanumati or the Pandavas’ wife Draupadi. She had disappeared from the narrative as unobtrusively as she had entered.

One would hardly disagree with the assertion that her story in Sarala’s version is as convincing as in any other, for example, the classical one of Vyasa. She played more or less the same role in the lives of Chitravirya and Vichitravirya, and their widows in Sarala’s version and in Vyasa’s. She was not the natural mother of Chitravirya and Vichitravirya, but no one indeed was (they were not born out of a human womb, as already mentioned); she was not only the foster mother to them, but also their only human mother. As such, she was the rightful mother-in-law of their wives, and had the usual control over them. Sarala’s story of her differs from Vyasa’s mainly in that she did not enter into the Kaurava family through marriage with Santanu, nor did she have any role whatsoever with Bhishma’s decision to remain unmarried. Satyavati was sage Pareswara’s wife, the sage who had seduced her. And Santanu was not infatuated with Satyavati and the thought of marrying her never entered his mind. Under the circumstances she had no role in Bhishma’s decision to stay unmarried.

In Sarala’s version, Santanu was a great devotee of Bhagawan Shiva, who was very pleased with him. Santanu was called duti iswara (“second Shiva”). In Sarala’s words he was rudra avataara (“incarnation of Rudra”). From a certain point of view, it is perhaps not entirely accidental and surprising that Ganga became his wife for a while. Sarala refers to Santanu throughout as muni (“sage”). Sarala himself was a devotee and a believer in sexual morality. He must have found it unacceptable to reduce a great devotee of Shiva to a rather ordinary human who was madly infatuated with a girl for her looks and pined for her. In Sarala’s narrative Santanu’s moral character and integrity are beyond censure.

As for Satyavati, in Sarala’s narrative she turned out to be a more harmonious character in some sense. The man who seduced her did not walk out on her; he married her. There was no tension in the marriage; she had the blessings of her father. She lived happily with her husband and their illustrious son, the great sage Vyasa, who, she said, protected them from any social disgrace or spiritual degeneration. Unlike in the classical version, here she was not the center of any spectacular events that proved momentous for the destiny of Hastinapur, but at the same time, she was not the cause of the numerous complications and strain that brought so much suffering in so many ways to so many people in the Kaurava family. One could imagine her feeling happy that Sarala created her differently from the way the great Vyasa had created his Satyavati.

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