In our society, we normally believe that the rules of marriage that we follow today are traditional. But Mahabharata introduced me to many strange rules regarding marriage and birth of children that would be considered definitely non-traditional today. The most illuminating incident was the birth of Pandavas, when Pandu and Kunti have a long conversation regarding marriage and child birth. This conversation turned out to be very revealing. We have all heard the story of how Kunti gets a magical mantra from Durvasa that enables her to get children from Gods. However, contrary to what the popular TV serial would have us believe, these children did not appear in Kunti’s lap magically as gifts from various gods. The text of Mahabharata gives ample evidence that these children were all conceived in the normal way. In fact, Pandu had to try very hard to convince Kunti to take the necessary steps and bear those children. He begins the conversation this way:
Pandu: Kunti, you know I am banned from having children, so please beget children for me from other men.
Kunti: No, I will not embrace any man but you, it is against dharma.
Pandu: No, it is not. Actually, in olden days, women used to roam about freely as men and they were not bound to one husband. In the matter of marriage and sexual partners, they did as they liked. The rule of single partner is quite new, so it is not against dharma at all for you to get children from other men.
This vital piece of information about the freedom of women in past is left out from most versions of Mahabharata that we know today. The TV serial Mahabharata, which is the source of mythological knowledge for many people today, surreptitiously avoids making any mention of the sexual freedom of women in ancient days. As a result, most of the audience never knew that it existed. The omission is not surprising, imagine the furor in rural Hindudom if people heard such heresies from a serial that they worshipped! Anyways, after Pandu fails to convince Kunti through this method, he tries the following.
Pandu: Kunti, you know that wives must obey husbands, hence, do as I say and get sons for me.
From this I drew the conclusion that by the time Mahabharat was written, the olden days of freedom of women were long gone, and it was already customary for women to obey their husbands. This argument still does not convince Kunti, and Pandu tries another gambit.
Pandu: There are different types of sons. They are: the son of you and your married wife, the son of wife and superior person who fathers a child out of kindness, the son of wife and another person paid to father a child, the son of conceived by wife after husband’s death, the maiden born son, the son born of unchaste wife, the son given, the son bought, the son self-given, the son received with pregnant bride, the brother’s son, and finally, the son of wife of lower caste.
From this speech, two important conclusions can be drawn. First of all, Pandu lists the sons of wives who were pregnant at marriage. In those days, it was ok for men to marry women who were already pregnant and raise those children as their own. Such liberality is not seen very often these days.
Secondly, in the list of sons, many are absolute strangers. For example, sons given, bought or adopted. But Pandu puts the son born of a lower caste wife last. In the hierarchy of sons, he can even accept strangers over a son of lower caste. That just shows the hypocritical importance of caste in Hinduism. But Kunti does not think so, and finally Pandu clinches the deal with this statement:
Pandu: Do you know, all of the above sons are the sons of the husband according to dharma? Everything that a wife owns or produces belongs to her husband. So hesitate no more, for all sons you beget shall bear my name and they shall extend the Kuru race.
And the rest, as we know, is history. Kunti agreed to the deal and gave birth to three sons fathered by three different males (Mahabharata insists that they were gods and not men, but even so, these were male gods). However, the rule that Pandu spouts here is again hypocritical. These Pandavas do not have a drop of Pandu’s blood in them, Kunti is not Pandava and neither are the gods who she got children from. But according to Pandu, these children extend the Kuru race. According to this logic, once a woman is married, she belongs not to her parent’s race but her husband’s race, and hence her children extend her husband’s race, no matter who the biological father is. Methinks Pandu needs a course in modern DNA technology, which takes no heed of a woman’s marital status but focuses on pure biology.
After reading this conversation between Pandu and Kunti, we are left with a very surprising view of how our ancients regarded marriage, and this view is at once more suffocating and more liberal than today. The importance of male child is entirely sickening, marriage was even then very important to the status of women, and husband’s word was still the law within the marriage. But yet, this was a time when pre marital and even extra marital partners were not as frowned upon as they are now. Now I think I know why the society did not want women to be educated. Before the advent of modern age, education mostly meant being able to write letters, do calculation, and read religious texts. And if women were reading these texts, they might question the narrow confines of their own roles and marriages. Even now, though so many women are educated, Pandu’s ideas would be considered heretical. In conclusion, this glimpse into the ancient rule proved to be very complex and unexpected.