Jul 23, 2011

Outdated Mahabharata Fashions

The Mahabharata is a treasure trove of information regarding our ancient culture, and reading it recently, I found it full of customs that are outdated today. For example, physical strength was the most desirable possession for men in those days, and this strength was evaluated through comparisons with the natural world. Men were often given the title of “bull among men” or “tiger among men” to signify their strength. In fact, on their wedding day, the five Pandavas “entered the wedding hall like mighty bulls entering a cow-pen!” Bhim is said to be like a “sixty year old elephant in the rut that is demented with the juices in three parts of his body and runs wild in the jungle, crushing all trees around him”. Men’s thighs were as big as “trunks of Sala tree” and their voices were praised for being “deep and loud as kettle drums”. When Bhim killed Jarasandha, the sound of his wailing was so fierce that “several women delivered prematurely!”

Beautiful eyes of a bull

The comparison with bulls, elephants and other animals continues with females. Women were praised for having “eyes like bull’s”, quite different from the complement of Mriganayani that we are more used to today! I convinced myself that the eyes of bulls, like those of mriga (deer), were probably beautiful too, but there were a couple other complement that I just could not reconcile with! One woman was praised for having “eyes protruding like a frog”, and another for having “a slim waist like a wasp!” Another complement that has completely gone out of fashion today is “gajagamini”,
the woman who walks with the swaying gait of an elephant. Today, in theworld of twig thin models, we are no longer infatuated with overweight elephants, however graceful they might be. Instead our praise goes to the woman who walks like a cat, a much slimmer animal!

We also get a glimpse of many outdated customs like counting wealth by cows. Cows were cited first of all to signify someone’s prosperity, even before the gold was counted, and many stories revolve around the theft of cows. Cows were also the most frequently given gifts to Brahmins, friends, and even daughters during marriage. Regarding marriage, other outdated customs were seen: Draupadi wore a white sari in her swayamvar. In fact, white was worn by many other royal characters too and praised for being pure and clean. Today this fashion has come full circle and any woman wearing white for her wedding would be branded as extremely radical in Nepal. Red, however, has retained its importance throughout these years, it is mentioned many times as an auspicious color. Draupadi and Subhadra are praised for wearing a red sari after marriage, and Yudhishthir is recommended to keep “soldiers who wear red” around him.
Bull eyed, wasp waisted, blue haired Draupadi with Jayadrath of thighs like Sala trees. Wonderful artwork by Philip Malpass www.philipmalpass.com

Many myths that have captured our imagination and that we take for granted today actually do not exist in the original text. The foremost of them is the fish that Arjun shot down at Draupadi Swayamvar. In the book, there is no fish and no reflection of it either, there is just a mechanical contraption in the sky that the suitor is supposed to shoot with five arrows. The catch was the bow that was too heavy for anyone to lift except Arjun (and unintentionally, Karna). Draupadi herself took the decision to reject Karna, without any advice from Krishna. Krishna’s advice is similarly lacking from the story of Jarasandha. The TV version of Jarasandha’s death showed Bhim tearing Jarasandha’a body apart and Jarasandha coming alive again by joining the torn parts. In the book, Bhim kills Jarasandha after thirteen days of wrestling by simply breaking his back, and Jarasandha does not regenerate from it. The incident of Krishna breaking two straws and giving hints to Bhim just never occurs.

Duryodhan was a surprise package as I found generally unknown information about him. He is frequently called Suyodhan as well Duryodhan, though no explanation is given for the simultaneous use of both these names (that happen to rhyme). Suyodhan means good warrior while Duryodhan means undefeatable warrior. When Duryodhan falls down into a deceptive lake that looks like the floor, Draupadi does not utter the statement “Duryodhan is the blind son of a blind father.” In fact, no one utters this statement, made famous by the TV serial and blamed for causing the entire Mahabharat war, only Bhim and other Pandavs laugh at Duryodhan. Shakuni does not live in Duryodhan’s palace, and he becomes a major character only when the dice game begins. His dice is not made of his father’s bones as believed, and he wins through sheer deceit.

In contrast, some myths and gods that were popular in those days have completely disappeared from the public eye today. For example, Vayu, Dharma, Agni, Mitra, Varun, and the Ashwins are frequently mentioned as influential deities. In the heyday of these now forgotten gods, the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva was in the distant future. Brahma and Shiva were already major gods, Brahma was often referred to as “the soul of the universe”, and many kings were devotes of Shiva. Vishnu however, is referred to as “the younger brother of Indra”, which is his sole claim to fame at this point. Though he was regarded as a fierce warrior, he was by no means regarded as the great protector of the universe as he is today. Instead, kings often prayed to Indra, called ”wielder of the thunderbolt”, a powerful deity who controlled rain and created drought if unappeased. These stories provide us with a glimpse of early stages of Hinduism and tell us that our religion is ever changing.

Source: English Translation of unabridged Mahabharata by Kisari Mohan Ganguly
Thanks to Philip Malpass for letting me use his art. More of his wonderfully realistic emotions can be found at http://www.paintpot.bizland.com/index.html

This article was published in the kathmandu post. http://www.ekantipur.com/2011/07/31/oped/a-few-mahabharata-tidbits/338294.html


jay said...

very informative.very nice article sewa. the pictures are good. i never noticed in our cowshed that cows-eyes are so pretty.

sewa said...

haha thanks jay dai. bholi gayera hernu hai, cows eyes are really beautiful, they are like naturally gajalu

Shyam Sharma said...

Okay, I will admit, I had forgotten such nitty gritty of the narratives in the Mahabharata, but I have always wondered whether we are supposed to read this big book mainly as historically significant (if not a historical document), or a collection of fables and fairy tales, a poetic/symbolic rendering of philosophical ideas, a politically significant tract meant for brainwashing people when it was composed ... or all of these. I like the neutral ways in which you reflect on the details.
As for my readerly response to your entry, I found your reflections more informative than reflective, so I was left a little confused about your perspective. Maybe your whole point is that "Hinduism is changing" but that, frankly, came as no surprise to me. Nothing is not changing, except some people's stupid thinking that some things never change. The reason I was less than wowed at the end of this particular entry was that when you started writing about beauty and such, even when I first looked at the title, I was expecting some thought-provoking commentary/discussion on the issue of beauty in Hindu culture and society, then and now. For example, what if the "fashions" become outdated? They naturally do. Are the legends of the Mahabharata, by any measure, the shaping force in Nepalese culture, or did the ruling/upper caste/class adopt a piece of literature written in foreign Sanskrit and involving temporally and spatially distant characters as "history" or source of political wisdom? If the legends of this text do have socio-cultural significance in our country, what, for instance, happens when the society considers "deer eyes" as beautiful? How "deer-eyed" are Tamang women, for instance? I was expecting that as a woman yourself, you would address the politics and/or sociology of beauty somehow. But you went on to talk about minute/scattered and rather tangential details, finally coming to a point that the title and beginning had not made me anticipate at all: Hinduism is changing. Anyways, I just wanted to share the reactions that I had while reading the entry... Maybe I was misreading the title and intro or something...

sewa said...

Dear Shyam,
Thank your for your wonderfully critical comment.

I would like to make it clear that my article was not supposed to be critical or analytical. it was just meant to be informative about the many misconceptions that we have about Mahabharata. I was trying to share the things that I found intersecting, the fact, for example, that Vishnu was called the younger brother of Indra, and thought to have been born from Aditi, came as a surprise to me, because nowadays we even have stories where Vishnu is a part of the creation process along with Brahma.

Also, you might believe that our religion is ever changing, but I find that most people, including myself, usually think that the rules and traditions of Hinduism are set in stone. The tradition of women wearing red for wedding, for example, is an inviolable one, and replacing it with white is (or used to be) social suicide. This is just an attempt to shed light on those changes and move towards more open attitudes.

I find your ideas regarding the cultural influence of Mahabharata, specially about the relevance of deer eyed women among a multicultural people, very striking, I will certainly keep them in mind when I am discussing Mahabharat in the future. Thanks a lot for your comment :)

Yug zee Tah said...

the comments still almost beat the write-up. :p but u r so funny.

Emrah Gunel said...

It is very interesting article. I am interested in old ancients. It is persuasive to have pictures to support ur ideas. Well Done.

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