After trying to force-fit Draupadi into the feminist mould, Nilanjana Roy sets her sights on Amba, Ambika and Ambalika in yet another extremely revealing paragraph.
Amba is, again, silenced in popular discussion, and yet her story remains both remarkable and disquieting — the woman who will even become a man in order to wreak revenge on the man who first abducts and then rejects her. There is nothing easy about her story, as anyone who has tried to rewrite the Mahabharata knows; or about the way in which we gloss over the sanctioned rapes of Ambika and Ambalika, one so afraid of the man who is in her bed that she shuts her eyes so as not to see him.
How? And who has silenced Amba in “popular discussion?” Phrases like this are always intriguing simply because they hang loose. There are a gazillion things that fall under “popular discussion.” How does one define something like “popular discussion?” What constitutes a “popular discussion?” Films? Books? Music? Politics? Art? Mahabharata? What? But this is precisely where the beauty lies: building a narrative without defining something.
Even if we set aside these definitional issues, Nilanjana gives us a very important hint as to where she comes from: the woman who will even become a man in order to wreak revenge on the man who first abducts and then rejects her. This is far more important that it seems. “the woman who will even become a man” sounds supremacist, even evil at a level—of course, apart from the fact that Amba is reborn a eunuch who is neither male nor female but Nilanjana has decided that a eunuch is a Male so I suppose we need to go by it. So think about it: a woman “who will even become a man” can also be interpreted—taking a leaf out of the Book of Nilanjana’s Interpretations—to mean that males are somehow inferior to females. Wait! It can also be interpreted to give us this equation: male=eunuch. Remember, this isn’t my interpretation; I’m merely following Nilanjana’s Tradition of Interpreting the Five Stories.
At which point, we encounter yet another factual error. Yes Bhishma abducts her. No. Bhishma doesn’t reject Amba. Actually, Nilanjana has gotten the sequence of events incorrect. After Amba confesses to Bhishma that she already loves Salva, it is Bhishma, the Amba-abductor who returns her to Salva. And it is Salva who rejects her. It is then that Amba proposes that Bhishma marry her. And it is then that Bhishma rejects her proposal because his conscience doesn’t allow him to break his vow of lifelong celibacy. Further, it is then that Amba immolates herself, swearing revenge against Bhishma.
Did Bhishma do right? No he didn’t. So what exactly is Bhishma’s position? Which is why I stress repeatedly: read the original. It is pretty clear that Bhishma was a blind adherent of tradition and orthodoxy if not possessed by a misguided sense of Dharma. It is this blindness that makes him abduct the three princesses. It is this blindness that makes him a mute spectator to Draupadi’s disrobing. It is this blindness that makes him tolerate every atrocity committed by the Kauravas. It is this blindness that makes him fight against the Pandavas in the Kurukshetra war. And in the end, it is the final consequence of this blindness that Krishna calls out in the Bhagavad Gita (11.34):
Dronanca Bhishmanca Jayadrathanca|
Karnam Tathaanyaanapi Yodhaveeraan||
Mayaa Hantaanstvam Jahi Maa Vyatishtitaa|
Yudhyasva Jetaaasi Saptanaan||
Slay Drona, Bhishma, Jayadratha, Karna, and other great warriors who are already killed by Me|
Do not be distressed, fight, and you will surely conquer your enemies in battle.
This verse simply means that Krishna—God himself—had recognized that this was to be Bhishma’s ultimate for siding with Adharma (injustice, non-righteousness, etc) and that Arjuna’s duty was to merely put an end to Bhishma’s physical body.
And so what we have here is once more, the same feature: selective reading on the part of Nilanjana Roy. Perhaps one of the finest attributes of the Mahabharata is the fact that there’s no injustice that goes unpunished. And Bhishma is himself a towering illustration of this fact: he is unbeatable on the battlefield and yet he gives up his life voluntarily when he faces the reborn face of the injustice he had rendered ages ago. But to cherry-pick specific instances of injustices with the sole purpose of tailoring them to suit whatever fancy theory is the mark of a juvenile mind to say the least.
As for Ambika and Ambalika, we need to begin with Nilanjana’s renewed display of intellectual dishonesty on her blog. In her tailpiece to her Business Standard article, she mentions the practice of Niyoga. However, she shrewdly terms Niyoga as “forced sex” by attributing it to some “reading” of the Mahabharata.
But what does the record say?
Niyoga was a perfectly acceptable social practice for continuing a lineage whereby the husband—who cannot impregnate his wife because of impotency or whatever other reason—gives consent to his wife to have sex with another man for the express purpose of bearing a child. The sexual relation with the other man would stop as soon as the wife became pregnant. The child born thus was termed a Kshetraja (literally “born of the field,” meaning born of the mother). The practice of Niyoga existed in Rig Vedic times (see for example, Mantra 10, Sutra 10) and is also held valid by Manu Smriti (IX.59-63) as an emergency/extreme measure. The same Manu Smriti also condemns Niyoga in IX.64-68 in cases where Niyoga is used as an excuse to satisfy lust.
So one really wonders why Nilanjana Roy chooses to only read the “reading” that informs her that Niyoga implies forced sex.
Like she does with Niyoga, Nilanjana also conceals the fact that different kinds of bride-taking existed in the time of Mahabharata. The most well-known method is Swayamvara. The lesser-known method happens to be abduction. This method also had a caveat: if the bride-to-be had already lost her heart to another man, such abduction was illegal and punishable. Now, the foremost examples of taking brides by abduction include Arjuna who abducted Subhadra, and Krishna, who abducted Rukmini. And so, when Bhishma abducted the three princesses, he was merely following the accepted norms of bride-taking in his time. Which is why he returned Amba to Salva when he learnt that she had already accepted Salva as her husband in her heart. This issue was absent in the case of Ambika and Ambalika.
Yet, Bhishma’s mistake lies in the fact that he acted as an agent to secure brides for the weak and impotent Vichitravirya. Which is what led to the subsequent Niyoga by Veda Vyasa. Given the definition of Niyoga, it is clear that it occurred with the consent of everybody involved: the two princesses, Vichitravirya, Satyavati, and Vyasa. Given this, we wonder how Nilanjana Roy manages to characterize it as a “sanctioned rape.” Now, what exactly is a sanctioned rape? It can either be consensual sex or rape. There’s nothing like a middle ground or what’s that other favourite cliché? Ah! “shades of grey.” Unless Nilanjana implies that the social system back then said it was okay to rape women as long as that resulted in children. But that could well be the case because she declares in the very first sentence of her piece that our epics are full of violence and rape and by implication, the Delhi rapists take their lessons from this culture.
Oh! and I don’t need to be a feminist to condemn Bhishma’s ill-advised adventure of abduction just in the same way that I don’t need a feminist lens to empathize with Amba’s suffering.
Continued in Part 4