Tuesday, July 22, 2008


In Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata, Madri was the daughter of Bhagavana, who was the king of Jyotisapura. Her mother was really a celestial being, an apsara, who had taken birth as a human after being cursed by god Indra for some misdemeanor that Sarala does not care to mention. Apsaras are known for their exceptional beauty, and if the mother was so beautiful, could her daughter have been any less? Besides, whoever has heard of an ugly princess in our puranas?

By the time Madri entered his life, Pandu had abdicated the throne of Hastinapura in favour of his elder brother, Dhritarastra, and was living with his wife Kunti in the forests surrounding the mountain Satasinga. One day Bhagavana, who had gone to the forest to hunt, ran into Pandu, and decided to give his daughter to him in marriage. Thus Pandu came to have a second wife, and thus Kunti shrank into the first wife. Now, if she had ever demurred on matters related to Madri, Sarala does not say anything about it. Nor does he describe the wedding, rather unusual for a narrative of this kind.

Soon Pandu earned that curse which forced him to live a life of abstinence from sex; he was condemned to die if he had sex – during the sex act itself. He was greatly worried that he would die issueless, which was bad from the point of view of his soul’s progress after death.

The sage Agasti (better known as “Agastya”) arrived one day. He told Pandu that he had no cause for worry on that count, because the great sage Durvasa had given Kunti a garland of beads and a mantra through which she could invoke anyone she liked and have a child from him. And her chosen person would never deny her because if he did, he would perish, be he anyone – Brahma or Indra or Vishnu. Agasti said that she should make use of the mantra and beget a child from a god so that the stigma attached to sex with a human out of wedlock would not get attached to her. Then in the manner of telling her about her future, the illustrious Agasti told Kunti that she would have three sons from god Dharma, Pavana, and Indra, and after that she should give the mantra to Madri who would have two sons from Aswini Kumara. He gave a special ointment to Madri with which she could attract Aswini Kumara. He advised Madri to serve Kunti with great sincerity and reverence and Kunti, to be kind to Madri.

The exciting part of Madri’s story starts from here. In due course, with Durvasa’s mantra, Kunti had three sons. One day, pleased with the devotion with which Madri had served her, she decided to reward her. She wouldn’t be childless, she told her, and gave her Durvasa’s garland of beads. She asked her to invoke any god she liked. At nightfall, she dressed her nicely, and Madri, who was naturally stunningly beautiful, looked absolutely gorgeous.

Madri reckoned that her chance had come. Kunti had already had sons from Indra, Pavana, etc. There weren’t more powerful gods than them, so she must think beyond such gods. She decided to invoke Vishnu himself. His son would be more powerful than Kunti’s and Gandhari’s, and would rule the world. And when she invoked Vishnu, Krishna appeared in no time. Except in one episode, in Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata, Krishna and Vishnu have been viewed as non-distinct, with the distinction between the part and the whole erased. In that one episode, as Krishna met Vishnu, who sharply reprimanded him for overstaying in the world, the avatara (“incarnation”) and the avatari (“the one who incarnates himself”) are most emphatically distinguished.

In any case, in Sarala’s narrative, when Krishna appears, drama appears. When Kunti invoked the gods of her choice, they came, and gave her sons and left, as unobtrusively as they had come. It was somewhat different of course when still unmarried, she had invoked the Sun god, more to test, out of curiosity, the efficacy of Durvasa’s mantra than to have a child. He listened to her pleadings, understood her situation and was considerate, but he expressed his helplessness about not having sex with her; he would perish if he didn’t. Durvasa’s mantra could simply not be ineffective. Under the circumstances he helped her as much as he could, the details of which we skip. In any case, even here, there was no spectacle, no drama. But could Sarala have his Krishna appear and disappear in an episode with so little impact? How could he have his Krishna as merely the controlled, and not the controller?

Krishna told Madri that he was devoted to Yudhisthira, as one would be to one’s god. Yudhisthira was the son of the god Dharma, and was himself the very embodiment of dharma. His mother Kunti was thus like the wife of his guru (“preceptor”), and as such like his mother, and given that, Madri too was like his mother. How could the son and his mother have a union, he asked Madri, why didn’t she think of this when she invoked him? Poor Madri, she was nonplussed.

Now from inside Kunti saw Krishna with Madri, and the first thought that occurred to her was that Madri’s son would be more powerful than hers and would therefore rule. When Krishna saw Kunti, he told her about his situation. On the one hand, he was constrained by Durvasa’s mantra, and on the other, he just couldn’t have a sexual relation with his gurupatni (“wife of the guru”), who was like his mother. Kunti then asked Madri to invoke someone else. But Krishna said he couldn’t disobey Durvasa. He would perish if he did. So she should invoke the great sage who alone would find a solution for his predicament.

The sage arrived, and saw Krishna. He told Madri that she had done wrong by invoking Narayana. He didn’t give a reason. It is not clear whether he agreed with Krishna’s argument against sex with Madri or whether he thought that the supreme lord should not have been dragged into such mundane matters as this. He freed Krishna from the obligations imposed on him by his mantra, and asked Madri to think of someone else. Durvasa thus ensured that the moral fabric of a relationship was not violated. But from another point of view, if Krishna didn’t want something, who could thrust it on him?

The episode, unlike any other, brings out a particular aspect of the relationship between the two wives of Pandu: their jealousy of each other, and their one-upmanship attempts with respect to each other. It also brings out their ambitions which would be realized through their children. Kaikeyi of Ramayana was not an individual; she was the eternal queen mother who wanted to see her own child prosper at the cost of others, if it came to that, and who wanted to have her own ambitions fulfilled through her son. In Mahabharata, she was manifest as Gandhari, Kunti, and Madri. It appears that Madri all along had felt that her situation was progressively weakening each time Kunti had a son. Therefore the first thought that came to her when she got the mantra was how to overcome the disadvantages she had with respect to Kunti at one go. For her Kunti was not a benefactor; she was only a rival. And consider Kunti. She gave her the mantra, even dressed her for the hour, but kept awake, and remained alert to see which god would come to oblige Madri. So naturally her immediate reaction on seeing Krishna with Madri was the apprehension that the latter’s son would be more powerful than hers, and would become king. At that moment Madri was not the one who had served her so sincerely, and so well; she was just her rival.

Madri got reconciled to the fact that Narayana would not be available to her. She didn’t suffer; she was very young, and was a simple person. Later one night when Pandu had gone into the forest, she invoked god Aswini Kumara, the Sun god’s son. When he arrived, Madri saw a strikingly handsome god - as handsome as the god Kamadeva (“god of love”), looking resplendent in the jewelry he wore. Madri was very happy with him, and from him she had a son, who his divine father named Nakula.

Soon the ultimate tragedy struck Madri. Kunti with the four children had gone to Hastinapura, leaving Madri behind. It was night. Madri was probably feeling very lonely; very young and a very simple person, she didn’t have the maturity and the strength of mind of Kunti. She was lying on her bed and was missing her husband. Absentmindedly she had picked up Durvasa’s garland of beads, and she was remembering Pandu. Pandu appeared. She was alarmed and asked him why he came to her at that hour of the night. He said he was forced to come since she remembered him with Durvasa’s garland in her hand. Madri contested: she didn’t invoke him. But for Durvasa’s mantra intention did not matter.

In that fateful moment Pandu was aware of his situation and of his impending death. He realized that he was going to die without being able to see his children at the time of his death. Madri resisted him, but he was no more in control over himself. Even gods were incapable of resisting Durvasa’s mantra, and he was a mere mortal. As fate was choking him, he overpowered Madri and forced her into sex. As they consummated the act, an arrow from the skies pierced through Pandu and entered Madri’s chest. Both were killed; however their child survived. This child came to be known as Sahadeva. In his narrative, Sarala makes use of the concept of saindu birth (“birth immediately after the union”), but it need not disturb us. Puranic discourse allowed such unnatural things. There is more to the story of Sahadeva’s birth. But here we are concerned with Madri’s story, not Sahadeva’s.

This is how Madri lived and died. Simple and uncomprehending, she was more like a child than a woman. Despite all her hidden jealousy towards Kunti, she had a certain kind of endearing naivety about her which distinguished her from the other Pandava women. She was in really lucky that she died along with her husband. Had she lived, she would have died a thousand deaths holding herself responsible for her husband’s fate. She didn’t have the maturity and the sense of discrimination to realize that what had happened was an accident, and that far from being the agent, she was a mere tool in the hands of fate.

She died twice. And she evokes sympathy more for her second death than her first. If that arrow gave her her first death, she died her second death on the funeral pyre. She was completely forgotten once her body was reduced to ashes. Her children were beautifully taken care of by Kunti and later by Yudhisthira. They were integrated into the Kunti family as Pandavas. From Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata one does not know whether they ever missed their mother. Madri had simply vanished from the narrative.