Ama, my maternal grandmother, who used to read her family copy of the Ramcharitmanas each day, had long resisted her erudite England-returned husband’s desire to buy an entire 18-volume set of the Mahabharata for his vast library. It was not for nothing, she said, that elders had forbidden a public recital or a continuous path (reading) of the fearsome epic, common in devout families in the case of the Ramayana or Bhagwat or Harivansh or Garuda Puranas. Reading aloud and interpreting an epic about a bitter and bloody fratricidal war in Kaliyuga, she was convinced, would lead to disaffection among brothers and finally an annihilation of families. When her husband, my grandfather, finally brought a set home, Ama saw to it that in her house the entire 18-volume set was never displayed sequentially on one shelf, but various volumes were placed on separate shelves in the library. This made an integrated reading and subsequent mulling over the anti-family text, if not impossible, certainly a daunting task for the many bookworms she and her husband had produced.

Much later, when the epic was being shown on Doordarshan to vast audiences across India, and even in neighbouring countries, Ama continued to shake her head gravely and predicted that this would lead to no good. She was convinced that all the communal riots and border skirmishes that took place thereafter were ignited by some gigantic fratricidal vibes released by the dramatised version of the Mahabharata being shown sequentially on the national network.

Mahabharata and women

There seems to be a spurt of interest in the Mahabharata once again with several TV channels showing the old, or a new, rendering of the epic, and many handbooks on individual heroes making it to bestsellers lists. But interpreters of stories in our ancient texts these days seldom draw upon the visible parallels between the intricate issues of kinship, legitimacy, caste and gender justice that Mahabharata’s tales bring up constantly and that continue to rock us after thousands of years.

Amid repeated chants of “Naryastu yatra poojayantey, ramantey tatr devta (Gods live where women are worshipped,)” and victory to Mother as in “Jai Mata di” and “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, the Mahabharata tales about men and women from among the nobility and commoners, remind us grimly of countless women bartered for cattle, shared by men, or presented as gifts along with a herd of cows (without so much as a by-your-leave) by their male mentors who were keen to please a sage, or eager to collect a handsome bride price from a childless king. Why, in Sanskrit the grammarian Panini quotes a samas (a compound noun) Dargavam that denotes a practice followed during an Aarsh wedding (among the eight accepted forms of marriage in the Smritis) where the rule of thumb for assessing the price of a bride is that a pair of a milch cow and a bull equals a virgin. Such details have rarely been researched, even by feminists, and placed in a proper context as an integrated, inescapable part of all prescribed books on ancient history or law.

Let me recount here a particularly touching but little known tale of Madhavi, daughter of the king Yayati who gave her to the famous saint Galav (Mahabharata, Udyog Parv, Sections 106-123) to sell and earn a good bride price with which he could repay his Guru. A sage had granted this beautiful young girl a boon that she would have the power to regain her virginity even after sleeping with multiple partners and bearing their children (Kanyaiv Tvam Bhavishyasi). Virginity then, as now, was considered a priceless boon and society insisted on a young virgin bride who could produce a certifiably legitimate heir to the throne, or family fortune. So though Madhavi’s renewable virginity proved to be her undoing, it came in handy for Galav.

Blessing or a curse?

Galav, a learned but penniless scholar, having completed his studies under the great teacher and sage Vishwamitra, had requested his guru to spell out the Guru Dakshina payable to him. After some prevarication, the sage finally said he wanted 800 rare Shyam Karna horses – white as the rays of the moon, each with one black ear. Overwhelmed by the demand, Galav had sought the help of his friend Suparna (Garuda) who suggested that since such a rare stable could only be maintained by a king, Galav should visit king Yayati of Pratishthan, who was renowned for his generosity, and ask for help. The king told Galav that he owned no such rare horses, and as far as he knew, none of the major rulers had a stable of 800 horses of the kind required for the Guru Dakshina either. Instead, Yayati handed Galav his virgin daughter Madhavi. With her renewable virginity, the princess could be sold again and again to kings looking for a son and heir from a virgin bride. And in return, Galav could ask as bride price whatever number of Shyam Karna steeds the royal buyer could contribute. It could easily be part of the deal that once Madhavi had produced a male heir for her buyer, she would be set free and sold again for another batch of horses, till the magic number of 800 was reached.

Thus began a long chain of Madhavi’s marriages in exchange for white horses. First, she was sold to the great Ikshvaku king Haryax in exchange for 200 Shyam Karna horses. As promised, she obliged her buyer by producing a son and heir named Vasumanas. He went on to become the famous composer of the celebrated 10th Mandala of the Rigveda.

Madhavi’s next buyer was the famous King Divodas of Kashi, who owned 200 Shyam Karna horses. Madhavi, the renewed virgin, obliged him too by producing a son and heir. Named Pratardana, this one too later became a famous warrior.

Galav now heard that Ushinara, the ruler of Bhoj Nagari, had 200 Shyam Karna horses and desperately wanted an heir to his throne. He offered Madhavi to Ushinara. Once again, Madhavi bore a son. This heir was named Sivi, who won great acclaim later as a model upholder of justice and the fairness principle in jurisprudence.

Madhavi’s third marriage brought the total count of Shyam Karna horses with Galav to 600. But Vishwamitra had asked for 800, and Galav was still short of the required number. Once again, he sought out Suparna, who said that there were no more white horses available, and that the only course left was for Galav to take what he had and request his guru to accept 600 horses along with Madhavi in lieu of the 200 missing horses, and set him free of his debt.

Vishwamitra agreed to this package, and accepted Madhavi and the 600 horses as his full Guru Dakshina. This set Galav free of a great moral burden. In time, Madhavi bore Vishwamitra a son named Ashtak, whom Vishwamitra presented with his stable of 600 horses. He then set Madhavi free with a blessing that said all four of her sons would be famous, and renounced the world. Ashtak – like his half-brothers Vasumanas, Pratardana and Sivi – achieved fame as a performer of several Ashwamedh Yagnas .

Yayati, the father of Madhavi, who had been witness to this sorry spectacle, now tried to arrange a Swayamvara for his ageing daughter, the virgin mother of four great sons, so that she had a chance at last, to marry a man of her choice. But Madhavi spurned all offers of marriage, and disappeared to “live in the woods after the manner of deer.”

Can you imagine how our collective vision of famous ancient historical lineages will change after we acknowledge the tales about our caste and gender systems? In the Mahabharata, these tales reveal that most of the greatest writers, poets, sages, warriors and emperor founders of ancient dynasties in India were sons abandoned by their fathers or mothers (Bharat, Bhishma, Ved Vyas, Ayu, the great-grandfather of the founder of the Puru dynasty, are just a few) or born out of wedlock (Karna) or of women sold, abducted or simply given away as fertile sex slaves. So much for the patriarchal touchstones of legitimacy.

So whatever the moral of the story, at least we know now that feminism has a history, and a rather long one at that.