Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Powerful Women from the Mahabharata: Satyavati

A smitten Shantanu with Satyavati. 
Don't you just hate it when fairy tales feature helpless women who are fair and lovely but either sleep through their own life, remain locked up in a towers guarded by fire - breathing dragons and evil witches or take an ill - advised bite from a poisoned apple and become comatose, till a handsome Prince shows up on horseback to kiss their troubles away? Then they get married and live crappily ever after. Even as a kid, these stories did not really work for me. I prefer characters who take control of their own damn lives, messy though it may become and shape their legacy. And speaking of taking control, few ladies in the annals of mythology and literature have displayed the grit and gumption of Satyavati in her male dominated world.

Satyavati's origins could not have been humbler. Raised by the chief of fishermen, as a youngster she ferried passengers across the river Yamuna, on her small boat. Naturally, she smelled fishy and that is not a scent people seek to bottle and sell for a small fortune, nor does such powerful bodily odours win the heart of Kings. However, her luck changed when she crossed paths with Sage Parashara. The ascetic was smitten and confessed his feelings for her. The prepossessing young girl was coy though and not quite willing to give herself to the sage. Parashara, cajoled her into obliging, by granting her two boons - her maidenhood would remain intact after she bore him a son and her fishy odour would be replaced by the fragrant scent of musk. Satyavati conceded and delivered none other than Veda Vyasa who promised to be there for his mother whenever she needed him. All she had to do when she required his presence was to think of him! (For obvious reasons, a story like this stretches the rules of logic in favor of narrative convenience but then the reader must remember that most stories are best enjoyed with a dash of salt, pepper, or your favorite seasoning including the ones carried in Newspapers and Whatsapp University which are supposed to be 'true facts'.)

The best of sons, Veda Vyasa proceeded to give his mother an exotic origin story (which tests the demands of rationale to breaking point). He writes of a great King named Uparichara Vasu, who married the lovely and virtuous Girika. This dutiful wife on discovering that she was ovulating sent a message to her husband and prepared to receive him. However, the King's ancestors made an inopportune demand and insisted that he hunt deer  and offer the venison to them as sraddha. Immediately, Uparichara Vasu set aside all thoughts of concupiscent bliss and took off to the forest to do his duty by is forefathers. However, his thoughts were on Girika, so he shed his seed and entrusted it to a helpful eagle, asking the bird to carry it to his wife.

A less helpful eagle attacked the seed bearing one en route, with the unfortunate but predictable result of the royal burden being dropped. The stuff landed in a river with quite the plop and was promptly swallowed by a fish. Naturally, this was no ordinary fish, but an apsara named Adrika, who was cursed to remain in that state till she delivered human children. Adrika delivered twins and took off immediately after the curse was lifted (Interestingly, the ancients were most insistent that women bear children but did not seem to mind when they did not hang around to do the actual mothering. They believed that a child's optimum development was aided if parents maintained a healthy distance and left the child to the care of a suitable Guru). The King was duly informed and he made the callous decision, to take the baby boy who was named Matsya while Satyavati was given to the chief of fishermen.

Yet, it was the girl he abandoned, who would go on to achieve great things. Satyavati, blessed with the irresistible fragrance bestowed upon her by Parashara would go on to win the heart of King Shantanu, prompting the great Bhishma to take the Bhramachari oath to unite his father and the fisher chief's daughter. It was also thanks to her efforts, that the Kuru lineage was perpetuated. But that is a story for another day, about the Niyoga tradition that was an ancient version of sperm donation. (If you want the details be sure to check out episode 3 ,  4, of Mahabharata with Anuja).

As for Satyavati herself, she remains an inspiration to all who seek to brave less than favorable odds and unfortunate circumstances to make what they will of themselves. It is a harsh truth, but the world never has been a fair place and I daresay, it never will be. But the encouraging thing is that not all who are blessed with privilege and opportunities galore succeed and not all who have been robbed of favor or chances succumb to failure. There are plenty of real life Satyavatis out there who offer proof if any were needed, that all it takes to achieve more than you dared dream possible, is to take your courage in your hands and make the most of what you have. Even if it appears to be nothing (and reeks of smelly fish). 


latha rajasekar said...

The story of the birth of sathyavathi and matsya was an interesting one. The power of these mythological stories lies in the 'make believe narration' with a positive note attached to it. Yours does that for me. However irrational these stories sound, I bet our mythological stories are much of its time, compared to the western world dealing with silly fairies and meaningless witches in much later period of time. Good you brought that out as well to begin with. Looking forward for more such powerful characters with new threads of stories attached to them.

Anuja Chandramouli said...

Thank you! I agree, these myths were ahead of their times in a lot of ways. Which is why I get worked up when people dismiss it as regressive, by cherry - picking a couple of stories that have not aged well or been misinterpreted or subverted.

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