Jun 11, 2012

Dushyanta and Other Whitewashed Men

Remember the romantic story of Shakuntala and Dushyanta? The one where they fall in love and Durvasa curses them apart, but they have a happy ending anyways? Well, guess what? Appears this story has other, not so romantic versions.  In Mahabharata, after marrying Shakuntala in the forest, Dushmanta (no, that was not a typo. This king’s name is spelled with an m instead of a y, and I could find no explanation) returns to his kingdom and decides to forget her. When Dushmanta doesn’t return for long, Shakuntala goes after him. Dushmanta refuses her outright. “Get out of my sight, rustic village woman, how dare you accuse a king of fathering your bastard child?” he roars. Ashram educated Shakuntala lectures Dushmanta on the value of truth, but Dushmanta pays no heed. When Shakuntala is sadly leaving his court, suddenly there is a sound from the sky: “Shakuntala is your lawfully wedded wife and you know it. Accept her, Dushmanta, or bear the consequences!” Terrified, Dushmanta accepts Shakuntala. 
Raja Ravi Verma's painting of SHakuntala
I was puzzled by this story because the Dushmanta I knew was much more pleasant. After some research, I found that Mahabharata is the oldest source of this story, while Kalidasa later wrote a romance based on it. In Kalidasa’s melodrama, Dushmanta forgot Shakuntala because of Durvasa’s curse. Kalidasa also introduced a token ring that would revive Dushmanta’s memory. Shakuntala conveniently loses the token, but all ends well when the token is found. 
Durvasa and Shakuntala
This saccharine version was so much more appealing that the entire universe conspired to popularize it, through constant refrain in art and literature. Even Mahakavai Devkota’s Shakuntal contains the same refrain. Apart from merely changing the story, this version exonerates Dushmanta of falsehood when he was no less than a cheat and an opportunist. Besides, it also reduces Shakuntala from an educated, resourceful woman who dares speak up to a king, to an incompetent whiner.
Even before Kalidasa’s romantic version, Mahabharata had still managed to justify Dushmanta’s actions. Dushmanta echoes his ideological predecessor Ram, and tells Shakuntala that he had just been testing her fidelity. There are other such high sounding justifications in Mahabharata that whitewash male behavior, and sometimes for much more serious offences. For example, sometimes children were born when venerable men “discharged their sperm at the sight of a beautiful woman.” Among many such children is Drona, whose father ejaculated into a drona (vessel) when he saw apsara Ghritachi bathing. Kripacharya’s father similarly ejaculated upon weeds at the sight of apsara Janapadi. If we accept a simple premise that no child could be born of ejaculated semen alone, we also acknowledge the existence of women who carried these children to term. Why were they not mentioned? Mahabharata gives us no clue, but educated guesses can be made from the words “could not help themselves” which describe the rishis’ actions.
Even today, the explanation that men cannot help themselves is used to justify anything from men’s visible expressions of sexuality (as opposed to women’s subdued or nonexistent expressions), men’s voracious sexual appetites, and most importantly, men’s sexual violence and use of force upon women. The fathers of Dronacharya and Kripacharya are both well known rishis, Bharadwaja and Sharadwan, but the bearers of their children are not even recognized as human. They were probably unworthy of mention because they were just receptacles (dronas) for rishis’ “seed” and had as much status in society as clumps of weeds. The logic follows that these women were forced upon, because the rishis “could not help themselves”. The rishis then conveniently abandoned them. Instead of portraying these indiscretions realistically, Mahabharata chooses cryptic symbols.
In another occasion, when apsara Tilottama is created, gods are unable to take their eyes off of her. Restricted by norms of civility, they could not turn their heads to stare at her. To solve this problem, Lord Shiva pops out four new heads, and Lord Indra pops out hundreds of eyes all over his body to see Tilottama from all angles. (There are older, more authentic explanations for Shiva’s heads and Indra’s eyes, but Hinduism is nothing if not multi-layered.) This story is treated as an amusing anecdote. That would not be a problem, except that women in similar situations are not treated quite so indulgently. Renuka who so much as cast her eyes on a king is killed by her own son, on the orders of her husband, no less. Vrinda, a woman who sincerely failed to recognize her husband, was rewarded with her husband’s murder. In contrast, Dushmanta who pretended not to recognize his wife got away with a warning. And of course, any woman who “cannot help herself” and pursues a man for sexual favors sets herself up for the worst ridicule and derision, like Surpanakha.
All this would not have been important if they were just stories. But when stories are worshipped, they set standards for our behavior. Kalidasa’s romantic Shakuntala tells young women that in case of unwanted pregnancy, a woman should wait for a fantastic solution. The situation was certainly not a playful test for Shakuntala, but Mahabharata glosses over her pain and sides with Dushmanta, allowing men everywhere to suspect women’s fidelity. The explanations for rishis’ uncontrolled sexual behavior allow the same explanation to pervade through society, leaving women to suffer the brunt of force and violence. And finally, amusing tones used in stories of men’s licentious behavior encourage the belief that such behavior is quite natural. In order to create a more compassionate world for women, it is time these biased stories were viewed just as stories, and no explanation of behavior be borrowed from them.

Published in the kathmandu post: http://ekantipur.com/2012/06/10/opinion/whitewashed-men/355352.html


Subodh said...

I read this article in The Kathmandu Post. Great going.....

Arjuna Mahanayak said...

It seems like you missed out one part. Dushmanta and Shakuntala were both selfish. Dushmanta wanted to enjoy her, and Shakuntala wanted power. She only agreed to marry him if her child will become future king. So, you can't just blame Dushmanta for that.

Also, lying to obtain women was common back then. Just look at what Krishna says to Arjuna:

Karna Parva Section 69

In a situation of peril to life and in marriage, falsehood becomes utterable. In a situation involving the loss of one's entire property, falsehood becomes utterable. On an occasion of marriage, or of enjoying a woman, or when life is in danger, or when one's entire property is about to be taken away, or for the sake of a Brahmana, falsehood may be uttered. These five kinds of falsehood have been declared to be sinless. On these occasions falsehood would become truth and truth would become falsehood.

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