Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, March 27, 2011

Oghavati was the wife of one Sudarshan and Bhisma tells her story to the Pandavas in the Anushasan Parva while explaining ethics and morality. While stepping out of the house, her husband told her, “Should a guest arrive in my absence, take care of all his needs.” While he was away, a guest did arrive but his needs were a bit excessive. He wanted to have sex with her. Oghavati agreed. And while the two were thus engaged, Sudarshan returned home. “Wife, where are you?” he asked. Oghavati was too shy to reply. So the guest shouted from inside, “She is busy with me on your bed attending to my desires.” Sudarshan replied, “Oh ok.. I will wait outside until you are done.” Eventually Oghavati and the guest come out and the guest blesses the couple for their generous hospitality. The guest, Bhisma reveals, is none other than Dharma, god of righteous conduct.

This story can be rather discomforting. The story challenges most modern notions of ethics and morality. It challenges the notions of marital fidelity and appropriate social conduct. It seems like a tale of a primitive society where sex hospitality was a norm. A feminist may argue that it shows either freedom of women or subjugation of women as per the whims of the husband. A moralist may argue this is a tale of the Kali Yuga, when morals collapse but according to the Mahabharata, which describes a war on the eve of Kali Yuga, this story belongs to an earlier more proper age.

There is much confusion between the words ethics and morality. Ethics comes from the Greek word ‘ethos’ which is more social in nature, and refers to behaviors that establish a noble society. Morality comes from the Latin word ‘moralitas’, which is more personal in nature, and refers to behaviors that establish good character. In the original sense of the term, ethics referred greatly to the notion of hospitality: the way a human being treated strangers enabled one to judge how noble a society was. The idea that ‘guest is God’ is a key thought that resonates across the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In the Bible, Abraham, father of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths was renowned for his hospitality. So the hospitality of Sudarshan and Oghavati is indeed commendable and ethical. But is it moral?

And it is here that things get a bit tough philosophically. Indian philosophy has always celebrated detachment over attachment. To equate the notion of ‘yours’ with ‘you’ is frowned upon. Your property or your spouse, or even your body (different types of ‘yours’) is not an extension of ‘you’. In fact, any proprietorship is seen as maya – the great delusion.

So the question is: As wife, is Oghavati the property of Sudarshan? Can Sudarshan say Oghavati is ‘mine’ and claim rights over her? If yes, he becomes a patriarch and then he can order her around. If no, then she is free to do as she pleases. So is Oghavati doing her wifely duty, obeying her husband, surrendering all free will, or is she freely, without compulsion, being hospitable without feeling exploited? Where does one draw the line?

These are the ideas that the Mahabharata presents to us. No clear answer is given. They are not prescriptions of behavior. They are supposed to be reflections on beliefs.