Societal Norms during Mahabharata!

Lately, I have been reading about Mahabharat and Bhagwad Gita. Many scholars and experts have written essays and treatises on the subject. I am reading these more out of curiosity to understand what the thought processes were, during those times. I will not go into disputed area whether Mahabharat happened at all. One thing I have realized after some reading, is that to understand events and incidents of those times, we should understand  the thought processes and the societal norms of those times. If we try to judge them against today’s thinking, then we may not be able to appreciate and absorb many things and in fact we will not understand many things. But again, in some areas, the thought processes have not changed much, even today.

In those times, if a ruler did not have a male child then he would marry many times till the male child was produced. If all the methods failed then the rulers would ask their brothers or someone from outside their families to “help” the wives to produce a male child. There is a reference of outsider Ved Vyas helping the queens Ambika and Ambalika. How did it fit in the norms of patriarchal society is not understood by me when the confirmed bachelor and celibate Bhishma, from the family, was available for this noble work.  Why services of outsider were taken? But he had taken a vow not to marry and to remain a celibate! So, what was important in those days? His vow or was it his ego or their clan’s lineage, using outside help, though help at home was available? If it were ego, then not much has changed even today!

Images show Kunti invoking Gods for Karna and Arjuna! We see more such examples. Pandu was sterile so he asked Kunti to invoke the boon she had received before her marriage. She invoked three different gods for the births of Dharma, Bhim and Arjun. Whereas Madri also used the same boon (looks like the boon was not patented!) and invoked Ashwini Kumars to produce Nakul and Sahadev!

My question is why different men for each child? In those days the only method available was to use a good old system for producing babies! (It is a different story that 101 Kauravas were born by a method similar to IVF! Really?) Should these episodes be discussed under scientific churning? In all cases apparently, the pregnancy took place after one intercourse which is statistically impossible. With this thought, I shudder to think about “family life” during the period when any of these children were born (using boon method)! Another thing was the birth of Karna! It appears that at a later stage, Kunti did not find it embarrassing to discuss the birth of a child before she was married. Were these the social norms or Kunti was an exception? I am assuming that Kunti was an exception so there is not much change in old and new thought processes about a child being born before marriage!  But about producing heir, old and current thought processes are vastly different.

On the lighter vein let me analyze one more thing. When Ved Vyasa  the father of  Dhritarashtra, to impregnate, Ambika his mother, was so scared when she saw Ved Vyasa, that she supposedly closed her eyes tightly shut! Dhritarashtra was born blind! Masters and Johnson the famous sex experts, should be able to comment on how many blind children should have been born to parents if shutting eyes theory was true! 😊😀🤣

Another observation is that among the clans, only Brahmans & Kshatriyas are mentioned everywhere. Other than this, “Suta” a clan of charioteers, is mentioned in case of Karna. There is another reference where Dhritarashtra fathered a child with a Vaishya woman!

A Suta is a child fathered with a Brahmana woman by a Kshatriya man. Since Brahmanas are higher up in the Varna system than Kshatriyas, this mixed marriage was considered to be against the scriptures, and the children born of such a union possess a low status. If a Brahmana man, fathers a child with a Kshatriya woman, the child acquires the caste of the father and becomes a Brahmana, and no stigma is attached to it. 

Hence Karna is referred to as Suta-Putra, a derogatory term. In case of Karna, this is unfortunate because his mother was Kunti, a Kshatriya and the father was Bhagwan Surya! He was brought up by Atiratha, who was Suta! Another prominent personality was Sanjay, counsellor to Dhritarashtra; he was also Suta! One interesting thing was the case of Vidura. His father was Vyasa and mother were a dasi. So, Vidura’s children had no rights to the throne nor did Vidura! But he was still royalty! How come there is hardly mention of other so-called “lower status” (not my words) people? We don’t read about farmers, artisans, dhobis (we read in Ramayana) and such people. Were they so unimportant that they are not even mentioned? Not much has changed even today, in human behaviour about varnas and castes!

How big were the nation states in those days? It seems that those were a town surrounded by a few villages, with some farmland and land to rare cattle herds. This was surrounded by deep jungles all around till one reached the next nation-state. I have not understood how they created wealth in those days. Apparently, in Mahabharata times, Akhand (unified) Bharat spread from Afghanistan to Bihar, the southern-most reference was Dwarka in Gujarat. Even Bengal does not come under discussion. Madri’s clan was supposedly from Afghanistan.

Some norms during those days were a little different, looting and raping started with Mughal invaders!  In a war, if a state lost the war, the king was restored or in case he died in the war, his son would be coronated. The reason for this was to bring clarity about who was the “Samrat” or the strongest King! There was no looting and taking away of womenfolk. There is even  mention that the women folk were honourably (sic) taken back in the clan even if they had suffered indignities!

There is a mention that in certain states, four/five generations from families lived together. To me, this is an exaggeration. Lifespan of humans has gone up in the last 100 years in India. In the year 1900, average life expectancy was 24 years. So, having people from 3 to 4 generations was an exception to the rule or it was an impossibility. As a story, it feels nice to read about so many generations living under one roof, so it must be read with a pinch of salt.

There are many facets to this discussion. I have simply written about the questions that came to my mind from the point of view of logic! When the logic goes haywire in a story or discussion, I try to accept these things as metaphors of how the society was in those days! Things may not actually happened, the way they are depicted. It is also possible that some events and stories may have been interpolated by writers/poets later; these merged quite smoothly over a period, and  we think that such events did occur! One thing is sure what I have written is not to hurt anybody’s sentiments or faith! More things some other time! But one thing is sure,  I am all the time intrigued by Mahabharata and Gita!

Life’s Station or Status!

Yesterday during Diwali celebrations and chit chat, a very interesting subject suddenly came up for discussion. The discussion became hotter than heat generated by Diwali crackers. Situ told a story of a lady doctor who married a plumber, in America. He also said that such events are pretty regular in foreign countries. He further said that in foreign countries like the US, the social fabric is such that people from different professions in life can be close friends. I said that this a rare case even in America . Jaya and Ashwini were pro this and I was against this thought process. I said that there are two points we are discussing simultaneously and mixing them. One is the respect given to professions/professionals and the other is social friendships, getting married as mentioned about the doctor’s marriage.

My point is that in India, there is no respect given to professions other than the engineers, doctors, pilots, architects and in certain professions. Our society does not give respect to technicians or artisans like carpenters, plumbers, lock smiths and so on. In fact such professions are treated as “lowly”, unfortunately. In foreign countries these trades are definitely respected. But the point being disputed was when it comes to the social status or a social station of these people, will they be treated equally in one’s mind? Will a top notch brain surgeon be a friend of an electrician?  It may so happen that they were classmates in school/college. A small percentage, very small one, will continue to be friends but as a norm this does not happen in real life! Let’s be honest! Utopian thinking says that this happens but will a guy living on Malabar Hills in Mumbai be weekly drink mate of a guy living in Virar or Kalyan! These names written by me are for explanation, please do not take this as my opinion.

Let us look at the background in India, the oldest civilization! There were four Varnas described in Hinduism.

  • Brahmins: priests, scholars and teachers.
  • Kshatriyas: rulers, warriors and administrators.
  • Vaishyas: agriculturalists and merchants.
  • Shudras: laborers and service providers.

These are called savarnas and are supposedly forward classes; remaining are tribes and scheduled tribes are avarnas, with no Varnas and are supposedly backward classes. These are not to be mixed up with Jatis or Castes. With this separation in India for thousands of years, the so called discrimination always happened discretely and many times not so discretely. Does this happen in foreign countries? My opinion is it happens but mostly discretely. To give example of British royalty, Queen Elizabeth’s sister Margaret, fell love with Snowden, a commoner and a photographer. Well, the family was graceful in allowing the marriage (there was no honour killing the way we have in India!) but Snowden was made Lord Snowden. How can Margaret’s husband be a commoner? This is how the discretion was resolved!

World over, there are different types of discretions and discriminations. In India, it is so ingrained in our blood, it’s embedded in our DNA. Coming back to subject of respect for courses or professions, it changes from region to region. It is the parents wish that the child gets well settled as early as possible, after education. In Maharashtra there have been many industries existing for a long time hence engineering course was a top runner. Doctors anyway are respected hence that was another course respected. But up north previously not many industries were around. Jobs were mostly available in government, so there the aim was to a take a basic degree and appear for competitive examinations.

A person’s success is measured by where the person reaches on the ladder to success.  Utopian thinking says that someone is successful in life when one gets to do things in life that the person loves. People love to sing, dance, and paint, play instruments or become writers of travelogues. In their goal to achieve success what are the steps of the ladder made up of! Are steps made up of the quality, in what you are doing; are you the best in your field and are also commercially successful! But the world is not utopia, so my thinking tells me that people go by quality as well as commercial success. To give an example you may be doing quality stuff in what you are doing but you are not able to buy a car to move around. 99% people will say he is damn good but not successful. That my friends is a fact of life! In whatever you are doing longevity is also equally important. One song wonder or one movie wonders are never called successful and it is said that the person did not live up to the potential, which in other ways is unsuccessful. A person who is already “successful” in something and achieves moderate success in some other field is considered more successful than someone who has achieved more, only in the second field!

Coming back to our “hot” discussion that we had yesterday, in India there is a discrimination in the type of work a person is doing; they are respected as per hierarchy of professions which got defined over a period. At the same time, success of a person is dependent on how that person has commercially succeeded in field rather the quality that has been achieved. But in western countries there is a respect to ALL professionals irrespective of the profession. But the success of the person is still judged the same way as is done by us.