THERE IS a difference between the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. There are many Ramayanas, of which Valmiki Ramayana is one. There is, however, only one Mahabharata, believed to have been composed by Krishna Dvaipayana Vedavyasa. Yes, there are regional versions of Mahabharata and they only vary in how they render popular accounts; sometimes one version contains a story that another doesn’t. Still, there is now a Critical Edition, courtesy of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (Pune), a massive scholarly exercise that spanned 50 years between 1916 and 1966. My references to the Mahabharata are based on this version. This doesn’t mean our views on the Mahabharata and its characters are based on the Critical Edition. They are usually based on regional versions. And more often than not, they are based on popular and abridged retellings that simplify and miss nuances in the original text. Who has the patience to read 1,00,000 shlokas (the number in the Critical Edition is 75,000), roughly 2 million words? Let me give examples.
First, there is Shvetaketu’s story, recounted by Pandu to Kunti in Adi Parva, when Pandu requests Kunti to invoke the gods, so that they can have children. Pandu says, “From the time they (women) became maidens, they were not faithful to their husbands. This was not regarded as against dharma, because that was the dharma of those times… Shvetaketu, the rishi’s son, did not accept this dharma. He established the present rule for men and women on earth… Those who are learned in dharma say that at the time of her season, a wife who is strict in her vows must seek her husband. This is dharma. However, at other times, the woman is free to choose… This is especially the case if one is hungry for sons, but is unable to procreate on one’s own.” The Mahabharata continues to be popular because it is replete with human sentiments, relationships and dilemmas that are universal, ones we can identify with even today. However, this identification doesn’t mean we should apply today’s social norms and value judgments to that age. As this quote shows, chastity and faithfulness, in their modern sense, were alien concepts. Women were free to choose, despite Shvetaketu, Uddalaka’s son, attempting to clamp down. For the sake of sons (there was a clear preference), chastity was recommended at the time of season. But even then, one’s son (putra) didn’t mean a man’s biological son. That was a matter of maternity, not paternity. Though not in the Mahabharata, there is the Satyakama/Jabala story from the Upanishads. Satyakama was Jabala’s son and wanted to study under the sage Gautama. Gautama wanted to know Satyakama’s varna (caste) and his father’s name. Satyakama went and asked his mother, Jabala. Jabala said she didn’t know, because she had been with many men. When Satyakama truthfully recounted this to Gautama, he was readily accepted as a disciple.
In passing, I wonder how many people have read two great speeches in the Mahabharata. One is in Udyoga Parva, when Krishna came and asked Kunti what message he should convey to the Pandavas, now that war was certain. Kunti recounted the story of Vidula (alternatively Vidura), who exhorted her son (Sanjaya) to fight for his rights, Sanjaya having been deprived of his kingdom by his enemies. This is one of the most inspirational speeches delivered by a mother to a son. The second one is from the famous Shakuntala/Duhshanta story in Adi Parva. When Duhshanta refused to recognise Shakuntala, her spirited speech rivaled anything that the more famous Draupadi ever said. And several people (Bhishma as Gangeya, Karna as Radheya, the Pandavas as Parthas) were named after their mothers.