Motherhood Messages from Mythology:
A study of Four Queens as Mothers in Indian Epics Ramayana and Mahabharata
Parenting is generally assumed to be providing the basic necessities, with profound intensity in interest, love and concern in children particularly within the home environment. Providing physical safety, shelter, clothes, nourishment, protecting the child from dangers besides health are primary duties of a parent. Physical and mental well being of the child is as much parental concern as would be their cultivation of good habits and good values. Intellectual security, creating an environment that is conducive for mind to develop, an atmosphere of peace and justice in family are among the prerequisites of good parenting. Intellectual development, emotional security, emotional development and the list goes on…
But these are wishful thinking. We live in a world that would deny us even the basic rights to live, as there is no warrantee against terrorism. To live and let live is a thing of the past. The bygone millennia were far more favorable to worldly existence than the present times. What children expect of parents in dutiful bounty but a friendly co-operation. Arguments are best when completely avoided, interaction and guidance offered only when solicited, demonstrating healthy practices without coercion on the part of the other to emulate can aid in establishing a parent – child relationship that transforms a living together of two disparate individuals into peaceful coexistence. Confrontation on the other hand will usher in verbal warfare leading to universal chaos.
In these circumstances, it would be interesting and worthwhile to inquire into mythology and note how some of the tallest characters have behaved as parents. The two great Indian Epics The Ramayana and the Mahabharata have been treasure houses of information for anything and everything the world could ask for Happy childhood challenged by scheming villains, obedient sons ousted by cunning voices, compassionate parents beleaguered by self-seeking desperados and many more disparities lace these epics.
The Mahabharata has been rightly hailed as the national epic of India. It is the story of a great war that terminated one yuga and began another. Considered to be the longest literary piece in the world, the most erudite evidence points out that, this great epic was composed between 2500 and 3000 years ago.
The Mahabharata is not an arbitrary compilation of tales like the Medieval Legends. Digressions aplenty, do shed light on the main plot and in fact help in maintaining the coherence. The plot revolves around the great battle that was waged at Kurukshetra between the Pandavas, their allies on the one side and Kauravas, their allies on the other. The war proverbially termed Dharma Yudda was the culmination of a whole generation of conflict and diplomatic maneuvering that pitted first among equals against second to none. And this made it all the more devastating eliminating several clans comprising of the best of men. The Pandavas, the sons of King Pandu, won the battle but lost the war that shattered the world they knew only to ruminate the rest of their lives in the emptiness of what they had won.
The Ramayana is one of the most well-known stories in the world, is considered to be the earliest epic written several millennia ago. It is a narrative on an exciting adventure tale about prince, Rama, the heir to the throne, banished to the forest for fourteen years, separated from his beloved wife, Sita. He wages a war against the abductor of Sita, Ravana, the King of Lanka, rescues her and returns to Ayodhya, and takes over the reins of the kingdom, to provide what is proverbially referred to as Rama Rajya – a form of governance that hitherto remains unsurpassed and unparalleled.
In more ways than one, these epics can be seen as a typically pitting the good against the evil. But they are much richer than these fairy tale tribes. They encompass human knowledge in abundance, lessons for all walks of life. In this article, I intend to take lessons of parenting, particularly motherhood, – the dos and don’ts of effective parenting. I shall be taking up the cases of Four Queens, Sumithra and Kaikeyi from the Ramayana along with Gandhari and Kunti from the Mahabharata.
In the mythologically instructed community, there is a corpus of images and models that provide the pattern to which the individual may aspire, a range of metaphoric identity.
Jerome S. Bruner, psychologist
Queen Kunti is easily one of the most prodigious women to be accorded much respect in the Indian tradition. Her activities were that of a very pious and loyal wife and of a person with a great deal of self-control. She has an impressive lineage there. She is the daughter of the Yadava Shurasena and can thus trace her ancestry to such mighty emperors as Puroorava, Yayati and Nahusha, rulers of perhaps India’s largest ever empires. It is the blood of such mighty emperors that runs through Kunti’s veins. And as Shurasena’s daughter, she is Vasudeva’s sister and Krishna’s maternal aunt. In the Bheel version (a tribal version popular in North India)of the epic, she is Shakti herself born as a woman, who lives her human life as the very embodiment of Shakti.
She espoused the principles she strongly believed in, irrespective of her position. She accompanied her husband, Pandu when he renounced the throne and left for the forest. Severe austere life devoid of the sophistication of palace did not deter her and she accepted the change in her fortune with poignant and dignified grace. On a later occasion, she joined her sons in their journey towards the forest, and even outlived an assassination attempt in the wax mansion by the Kauravas. Her word was taken seriously both for their wisdom and guidance as in the case of Draupadi marrying her five sons. This is because, without looking at them she asked her sons to share the prize they had won.
Despite her sufferings, she found strength in her inner wisdom that carted her sons through crises particularly in the fratricidal war for justice.
The negative side of Kunti as a mother is best reflected in her handling of her Kaneena (child born to a woman before marriage) son Karna In spite of all her love for Karna, she was keen to get him out of her life as soon as he was born . So she floated the basket containing the young divine baby on a river and abandoned him completely out of her memory and life.
Thus with Karna, Kunti chooses the easy way out. In other words, her interests always preceded karna’s. This led to her abandoning him not just after his birth but repeatedly throughout his life. In the first instance he was saved by a good natured charioteer and his wife. After the floating incident we next see Karna as a young energetic youth qualified to challenge Arjuna in the arena where the Kaurava and the Pandava princes displayed their learning. He was rejected instantly because he was not a Kshatriya. One word of acknowledgement from Kunti could have saved not just Karna but the very Kurukshetra war that erupted later. But Kunti decided to abandon him again. This time Karna fell in line with evil. Duryodhana was quick to capitalize on his strength and weakness to crown him Anga Raja – the king of the Kingdom of Anga.
Her own son Bheema calls Karna a charioteer and humiliates him in the most caustic terms and asks him to get hold of his whip to drive chariots. All this in Kunti’s presence, but, for her part, she chooses to remain silent only to desert him.
There were numerous occasions when she could have felt the pulse of pride if only she had acknowledged his birth to her. But she refuses to recognize and admit the truth about him publicly.
The one occasion that she chooses to meet him and confess the truth of his birth is during the war. Even then it is to obtain something from him and not carry out her duties as his mother. She gets him to promise that he would not kill the Pandavas except Arjuna. By doing so, she makes him betray the man who recognized the dignity of his caliber.
In Bheel Bharatha, Kunti is supposed to have dumped Karna as an infant in a rubbish heap. This is both literal and metaphorical. When we look at Karna’s deeds, we wonder if this is true. He does indeed carry out some mean unethical deeds in his life, the meanest of them all is his vigorous incitement of Dushshasana in the act of debasing Draupadi in the Court Hall of Hastinapura. Kunti’s silence even at this moment is as intriguing as her rejection of Karna when he demonstrated his greatness. It could be argued that Karna could have evolved and realized the full potentials of his being if Kunti had not deserted him. She is squarely responsible for his falling into the hands of the Kauravas, ultimately into the darkness and dirt of evil. In effect she discarded an invaluable diamond into a rubbish heap. Which is exactly what the Bheel Bharata claims; she buried him in a rubbish heap.
Her attitude towards Karna may be puzzling. Many scholars have stated that there are reasons for her indifference. May be, she was conscious of her honour while dealing with Karna as he was born out of marriage. But when Karna eventually died, in the war, she courageously and whole heartedly acknowledged his valour.
Nevertheless, Kunti has her bright side as a mother to Nakula and Sahadeva who are actually Madri’s (Pandu’s second wife) children. In fact this act resurrects her from the sin of rejecting of her own Karna. There are instances when she even exhorts her eldest born Yudhishtra to take extra care of his youngest siblings. Such was her care and concern for them that forms a perfect foil to her treatment of her own Karna.
In Kunti, therefore, we see a devoted and none the less inquisitive maiden, a diligent wife, who respects elders and a trustworthy source of comfort to her husband. But she prevails as the archetypal dedicated mother, constantly advising and guiding her children, and ever willing to compromise on her comforts for their well being. Women like her have led and represented the concept of Bharat Mata. As feminist philosopher Judith Butler said, “Gender is a fact rather than an arbitrary set of concepts.” And Kunti’s motherhood stands testimony to it with all its positive and negative sides complementing each other.
Gandhari, often referred to as the ‘model of female propriety’, also considered an incarnation of Mati,(Goddess of Intelligence) is the daughter of Subala, the king of Gandhara,(modern Kandhahar) a region in the northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. A tragic character of Mahabharata, her fearless life and strong disposition is very relevant to the contemporary socio-political context. She was forced to marry, Dhritrashtra, a blind king who was much older to her. This came as a rude shock to her, violating her womanly rights. Gandhari volunteered to blindfold herself throughout her married life which is generally assumed to be an act of supreme self sacrifice. She therefore forced herself into an act of self denial of the power and pleasure of sight that her husband could never experience and relish. Underlying Gandhari’s resolve to remain blindfolded was a silent but a strong protest in opposition to the power games and of course the forced marriage, at once making her enforced blindness both physical and metaphorical. She remained blind to the power games, political manipulations, irrefutable affection for her sons even if they indulge in hatred. The animosity they entertained with their first cousins, the Pandavas, swelled into the great war of Kurukshetra. This also explains her silence when Draupadi was defiled in the court. On hind sight one can see that Gandhari was more of a victim of a society that attempted to endorse male supremacy. Her protest nevertheless was loud, clear and successful
As a mother, twice she manifested her affection and concern for her son Duryodhana. Once, when she tried to wrap him with an invincible aura to avert death in the war. To her shock she failed one, because he was on the side of Adharma or evil, two, because he did not obey her words completely. She had asked him to come unclothed. She would see him with her naked eyes to bestow upon him a protective ring. But he appears with a loin around his waist. This repels the power of her vision to fall on his entire body making his waist to knee weak and vulnerable. He was eventually killed by Bheema who broke his thighs. The other occasion when she displayed her wrath for the loss of her children was through a small gap in the cloth with which her eyes were blindfolded; her gaze fell on Yudhisthira’s toe. The toe was charred black reflecting the power of her vision.
The boon that will bestow a 100 sons, turned out to be a curse. Her sons much against her wishes perpetrated crime after crime on their cousins, insinuated by her own bother, Shakuni. She remained completely oblivious – or so she claimed –of her sons’ misadventures, as the Kauravas made several attempts to eliminate the Pandavas. She favoured peace, but never reined in her sons to establish peace, blinded by affection. She repeatedly exhorted her sons to follow dharma and make peace with the Pandavas but this was seen as a sign of weakness that was exhaled by her blindness.
Her enforced blindness and the lack of ‘eye contact’ with her children left them bereft of humaneness. They were insinuated by their maternal uncle , Shakuni, who was shattered by sister’s condition and held Bhishma squarely responsible for the same. His agenda of eliminating the kuru clan which he equated with Bhishma’s clan, was effected by slow poisoning his nephews into evil ways. He also harboured ambitions to the throne in Duryodhana. All this happened right under Gandhari’s nose. But she continued to remain blind. Several plans were hatched to kill the Pandavas, the attempt at drowning Bheema when they were in their early teens, the infamous wax mansion episode, the game of dice and the eventual banishment, but the perpetrators were never brought to book. She remained blind to all these as well.
Gandhari is a powerful character and therefore a role model. Her positive attributes, have often gone unnoticed. Her unconditional love for Kunti is reflected in Dhuryodhana’s unconditional acceptance with Karna though the relationship between the two (Kunti and Karna) remained obscure to them. This is a trait straight from Gandhari’s book. Her love for Draupadi, even though her sons could not win her, was silently registered and best exhibited when she allowed her to curse the Kuru clan. Her silence endorsed the power of women. Her sons failed to understand this silence. They deceived themselves into believing that their mother vouched for their actions. Her blindness now blinded the others.
Gandhari was much respected and admired quite deservedly so by all, including the Pandavas. She was endowed with a tough spirit and rationality, that even King Dhritarashtra solicited her sound advice. She never missed an opportunity to urge him to restrain the activities of Duryodhana. She has also insisted that he reinstate the Pandavas. But, never really voiced it out to her sons herself. Her motherliness was best exhibited when she stood for justice and refused to bless the Kauravas before the Kurukshetra war and remained strong and steadfast in her anti-war cum pro-justice position. She sat with the king listening to Sanjaya’s narration of the war. An advocate of peace she was indeed very saddened by the tragic consequence of the war.
In the present context, Gandhari’s motherhood can be described as a precursor to the marvels of the modern day natal sciences. Her dedication to duty, family, spouse and dharma, though not necessarily in that order is unparallelled. Her life is an exemplary case for the need for women to be rational and steadfast in their perception and performance of the many roles they play through their lives. A heavy demand indeed, in this cut – throat competitive world.
Kaikeyi, in the R?m?yana, was the second of King Da?aratha’s three wives and a queen of Ayodhy?. She was the daughter of the mighty Ashwapati, a long-term ally of Ayodhya. Her marriage to Dasaratha was settled only after the latter promised her father that her son would become the heir apparent to the throne of Ayodhya. Dasaratha little hesitated to this as kauslya, his first wife was issueless. But even Kaikeyi could not beget a son, and eventually Dasaratha married Sumitra, the princess of Magadha, another kingdom with strong political ties to Ayodhya.
Kaikeyi has intrigued all scholars, both through her character as a person and as a mother. Therefore it is worth examining her character. A peep into her childhood provides a strong clue to her motives behind her insistence on the banishment of Rama from Ayodhya to the forest for fourteen years. As a young girl she was the only sister to seven brothers. She had no maternal influence in her early childhood as her father had estranged his wife over a trifling issue. Ashwapati could understand the language of the birds. This boon, however had strings attached to it. He was refrained from revealing the contents of their conversation, failing which he would have to lose his life. Once, when the King and his Queen were in the palace gardens, Ashwapati happened to overhear the conversation of a pair of swans. His focus on overhearing the birds betrayed caution, and he laughed aloud. His wife persisted on knowing the reason for his sudden laughter. He feared that he would somehow reveal the idea in some unguarded moment. Hence he felt that Kaikeyi’s mother threatened the happiness of his family and he unjustly banished her from the palace. Kaikeyi never saw her mother again. Having been raised by her wet nurse, Manthara, in the absence of a mother at such a young age, allied with her father’s treatment of her mother chiseled a deep impression on the young mind. She developed a extreme distrust for all men. Her mother’s subsequent exile coupled with Manthara’s constant fuelling of negative impulses harboured a sense of insecurity in her. This is clearly revealed in her disposition as the secondary consort to Dasaratha. She soon realized the depth of Dasaratha’s love and affection for his Queen and Empress, Kausalya. The reason for his marrying her was chiefly to produce the much awaited heir. Manthara’s scheming ideas were of great help to her, particularly to win over the king. This cunningness was aptly rewarded when she earned two boons from him at a very critical juncture.
Kaikeyi’s boons turned out to be Kausalya’s bane.
Years later, plans were laid to crown Rama, the son of Kausalya, the heir apparent, as King. A true human being that she is when left to herself, Kaikeyi was genuinely delighted . However, Manthara ensured that Kaikeyi fell a prey to her scheming ways. Her own son Bharatha, on hearing about his mother’s evil desires, refused to budge to her demands. Not only did he refuse kingship, he even went to the extent of recalling Rama back to Ayodhya. He agreed to return only after his elder brother parted with his footwear which will govern the empire. This handed out a tight slap on the face to Kaikeyi and Manthara.
When we analyse Kaikeyi’s mindset, we realize that much of it stems from her childhood insecurity and total distrust of men in general and husbands in particular. Her mother’s experience at the hands of her father, has engraved deeply in her mind that very often her natural good self gets clouded by these negative motives. Her character as a person and as a mother is greatly influenced by the happenings of her younger days.
It is not just for Bharatha that she claims the throne. It is also for her own pride and security as the Queen Mother winning over Kausalya as Dasaratha’s favourite, that her claim seem complete and valid. Her ego is further punctured when she succeeds in neither. Bharatha refuses the throne while Dasaratha, dies exactly six days after Rama’s departure to the forest. Furthermore, Bharatha never addressed her as “Mother” again. Kaikeyi was said to have died a broken-hearted woman in total seclusion, estranged from her son, his wife Mandavi and their two sons, her only grandchildren. She had to blame only herself and perhaps fate for both these events.
As a mother, she could have been true but for Manthara’s influence. Her delight on hearing abour Rama’s coronation was spontaneous and genuine. Valmiki describes it as a delight a mother would feel for a happy occurrence to her own son. Such was her affection for Rama. But once triggered, her outpours knew no bounds. She not only demanded the kingdom for her son, but wanted Rama to be banished from the kingdom, to ensure safety for her son. This is not the Kaikeyi who reacted so positively just a little while before. She must have been the very embodiment of humane feelings. But circumstances, fate and Manthara never allowed her to be her own self. Her association with Manthara was far too deep and so was the sway the latter had on her, that it became impossible to disentangle the relationship. A weak childhood rendered a weak mindset that eventually succumbed to Mantahara’s exploitation of her weakness.
Sumitra, the third queen of king Dashratha, hailed from the ancient kingdom of Kashi. The wisest of the all the wives of Dasaratha, she was the first to realize that Rama was the incarnation of Lord Narayana.
In the Puthra Kameshti Yaga, that was performed to beget children, both Kausalya and Kaikeyi offered their second portion of the Kheer to Sumitra.She produced two sons, Lakshmana was born out of the portion given to her by Kausalya while, Shatrughana was born out of the portion given to her by Kaikeyi.
Her affection for children is vividly described in the Balakanda of Valmiki’s Ramayana. All the four young princes would choose to remain in Sumitra’s proximity in all their waking hours. Rama and Bharatha would insist on sleeping only on her lap and when they wake up, would persistently cry until they see her. ” Sumitra, here is your son, he does not sleep without your lap, see how red his eyes have become due to his incessant crying.” Kausalya and Kaikeyi would often rush to her with these words. The children would return to switch off mode as soon as she takes them in her arms. Such was the intimacy this Queen and the princes enjoyed.
Her relationship with the other queens was equally pleasant. It is believed that she would have prevailed over Kaikeyi when Rama was exiled, if she were given a chance. It is perhaps for this reason that Rama, in one version of Ramayana, sends Lakshmana to get her permission and blessings, since, her favouring Rama would have forced Kaikeyi to change her mind and decision that would make Rama go back on his word to his father.
When Lakshma insisted that he would accompany Rama to the forest, he was worried if his mother would not appreciate the idea. But contrary to everyone’s expectations, she tells Lakshmana, ” O son, being far from me, don’t ever think that you are far away from your parents, Sita will be your mother and Rama will be your father because the elder brother is just like a father and do not regret being far away from Ayodhya because Ayodhya is at the very place where Rama resides. You don’t have any business in Ayodhya in the absence of Rama.”
Further, she said: ” In this world, only that woman is fit to be called a mother whose son is the devotee of Raghunath, otherwise it would have been better if she were incapable of giving birth to a son”.
Her respect for Kaikeyi hardly changed , despite the fact that she was responsible for Rama’s exile. On he other hand she tells Lakshman, ” O son! Only your misfortune is responsible for sending Rama into exile and there is no other reason and you must consider it as your good fortune that you would be getting an opportunity to serve Rama and Sita while in exile.”
Sumitra goes a step further. She also envies her own son, considering it his good fortune to remain in the propinquity of Rama and bemoans her own misfortune that she has to remain far away from him. Her next piece of advice was with respect to Lakshmana seeking to serve Rama with his thoughts, words and deeds. She also warned Lakshmana not to act in a manner that could offend Rama.
With these words of wisdom she let Lakshmana accompany Rama and Sita to the forest.
During the war with Lanka, when she came to know that Lakshmana was injured, by the ‘Shakti- Bana’ quite unlike any other mother, the first thought that flashed across her mind was about the safety of Rama and not her son. She was more concerned about the fact that Rama was alone. Besides she was also aware of Rama’s love for his younger sibling and hence could understand the pain and suffering he had to endure in his absence. She even asked her second son Shatrughuna to serve Rama in his hour of need.
This is the hallmark of Sumitra as a mother. Fully aware that her older son may not survive, she was willing to spare her other son to serve Rama. Such selfless mothers are hard to come by in this wild wicked world.
She, never once grieved about her son’s separation. Conversely, she was envious of him in that he could be in close proximity of Rama.
Much of her positive attitude rubbed into her children’s temperament.
Lakshmana absorbed these exceptional qualities and quite akin to her personality had an unfailing love for his brother.
Towards the end of Rama’s life, Sage Dhurvasa comes to meet Rama. Earlier Rama had told Lakshmana that he should not be disturbed, no matter who comes to meet him. If he is, then Lakshmana would have to end his existence. It is at this juncture that the sage known for his vicious curses, arrived. Lakshmana falls into a serious dilemma. He explains to the sage in a very polite manner the instructions of his brother. To which the sage replies, that if he is not permitted to meet Rama, then the entire clan of Rama would be annihilated. Lakshmana did not wink a moment to decide. He went in and informed his brother of the Sage’s arrival, took his blessings and left for the river Sarayu to complete his mission on earth. Such was his devotion to his brother. He would rather end his existence than allow Rama’s descendents to be annihilated. His priorities cannot be defined any more clearly than this. . ‘Like mother like son’ in the truest spirit of the saying.
‘Blessed was the mother’ and ‘blessed was the son’, acclaims Tulsidas, in his description of Sumitra. Her unbounded love and affection for Rama is unparalleled in any mythology. The poet further eulogises this great character, when he says, “Only such type of mothers who is like Sumitra is worthy of being called a mother and a child having taken birth from the womb of such a mother is worthy of being called a son. Salutations to such a mother like Sumitra”.
When we look objectively at these women of great substance, we could easily decipher their strength and short comings. While Kunti exercised disparity among her own children, Gandhari, was blind to her own children’s evil ways, While kaikeyi was possessive, Sumithra found ecstasy in sharing. We can also see that their personalities rub into their children’s activities. Karna parted ways with good when he found recognition in evil. Duryodhana was blind to evil just as his mother was blinded by affection. Bharatha refused to respect his mother just as she refused to respect the king and honour is decision. Whereas Sumithra’s show of unlimited and unmitigated affection was perfectly imbibed by Lakshmana who was equally impeccable in his love and service to his brother.
The message from these women is loud and clear. Attitudes are engineered into the child’s mind even if they are not articulated. And the mother is that supreme personality whose influence on the child never ends. She influences eternity.
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