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The strange tale of Oghavati

Mahabharata, Myth Theory 20 Comments

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.

  • As clear as it gets. This story broadens the difference in being prescriptive versus being reflective.

    This can never be prescribed, but excellent food for thought.

    And Indian mythology is filled with dilemmas of various kind. All that really come to us in real life in some form.

    Excellent work sir!

  • Giriraj Bhatia

    Dear Sir,

    You always tell that our mythology is reflective and not prescriptive.

    However, I feel that as you need some basic education to have thinking and intellectual mind. Similarly there must be some basic prescriptions in our mythology which helps us know what is dharm and adharm and which helps us develop a reflective mind.

    Hope you will reflect and prescribe.

    Thank you very much for sharing so much information.

    With regards,

    Giriraj

  • Sumedha

    Oghawati & Sudarshan are there own people, with their own rights, likes & dislikes. They respected each others space…. Without offending the other. They decided that they wont get offended. WOW!!!

    Live & let live was probably their understanding….no judgements was probably another understanding. No underminig the other, was yet another. They did not impose on each other, they had a collective thinking which suited both. They did what they thought was right. Or maybe they din’t think so much & just accepted life as an adventure! Can we????

    Can we reach that non judgemental, non imposing, non abusive, non democratic, non understanding state. CAN WE JUST BE. Phew!!!

    ‘Life’ or ‘Living’ seems to have become an ocupation for us where we are constantly playing power/control games.

    • Ketan

      Sumedha, I couldn’t agree with you more. We must be bold enough to rethink and stop wanting to “own” people. Monogamy must be consensual. The current monogamy being practiced is more borne out of insecurity and hence is constantly and secretly being violated.

  • optyagi

    I think Oghavati misunderstood the instructions of her husband. Our is society of Athithi Devo Bhava and sex desire expressed by the Guest does not form part of the culture. I am surprised in what context Bhishma narrated this story? No Indian women is obelized to carryout such instructions of her husband. I doubt how such things can happen in SATYUGA.

    • @ Mr.Tyagi, Mahabharat was fought almost in the end of Dwapar yug. Oghavati did what she felt was right considering Athithi Devo Bhava. Pl read Sumedha’s views/comments once again and U will understand.

      • optyagi

        Dear Mr Arora,the conduct of Oghavati cannot be accetpted in the context of Indian culture which has high moral values. Either she was innocent or an advice of her husband was a final word. This is not the spirit of Athithi Devo Bhava.

        • You can not judge the past from the view point of the present.

          The story of Atri’s wife Ansuya and the appearance of Dattatreya has similar parallels. Here Ansuya turns her guests into children so she can feed them naked !

          In Mughal times, queens of Rajput and Mughal linage used to send “breast milk” to bind generals or courtiers to their political / military causes. Women past lactating would wash their breast with milk and send it to create a political alliance. Sending a rakhi is a very tame Bollywood / AmarChitra Katha version of the same political tactic.

          Would such an option be “acceptable” in modern India ? Most probably not ! But it was seen as a sane option less than 400 years ago !

          Recently, I read that in Saudi Arabia, some religious authorities had stipulated that for a woman to work in an office full of unrelated men was amoral. To turn the situation around, they suggested the women should offer their breast milk to the men in the office to bind them in mother-child relationship ! You can imagine the outrage this might cause in some circles – but this was proposed by the religious authorities !!!

          Ethics, as Devduttji has said, is tied to society. As society keeps evolving and changing its position on matters of acceptable behavior, what is ethical and seen to be “moral” changes too.

          Society of any era is full of contradictions and the Mahabharat mirrors that in its 100,000 verses.

          There are no absolute rights and wrongs in life. Each and every situation is to be judged on its own merit and answers sought in conformity with the ground realities.

        • Ketan

          This is an anecdote which may or may not be true. The idea behind this anecdote is to think and analyse and take learnings for ourselves. If Oghavati and her husband had such an arrangement, then who are we to tell them what is moral and what is immoral?

  • Well, i think its wrong on the part of people reading mythology to compare its stories directly with the Real Life…These are mere examples and stories which may not have actually happened…

    So instead of fighting like Bunch of foolish kids, it would be nice to just read, understand and let Go !!!

    • YES FREEDOM OF INTERPRETATION

    • ganesh latkar

      you are right

  • Anil

    Thought provoking article Devdutt ji and excellent point Bhagwat ji!! Could not agree more….

  • shruti tiwari

    It is a very beautiful writing. It requires understanding, one can not judge it that easily. Before trying I would like to know the context on which Bhishma told this story to Yudhistira and the “yuga” when this story took place. I wish you get my comment and reply to it.
    Thanks!!

  • bhagwat_s@yahoo.com shah

    There are a lot of folk stories that were added to the Mahabharata. Many have dubious sources and this is one of them.
    Ethics, morality, humanity, legality are all challenged by this story. Eg – what will happen if the woman conceived as a result of such “hospitality” ? Who will be the legal father ? Who be responsible for the child’s upkeep ?

    We should be judicious in our reading of historical epics like Ramayan and Mahabharata and not equate them to scripture.

  • S.K.Sundararajan Krishnaswami

    The most important part here is what was the feeling of ogahawati, was she condescending because her husband asked to, or was she acting on her free will, or was she dumb not to think of the morality of the action? the beauty is she did not try to hide, or she did not react as if she is doing something wrong, when the husband called, there lies Indian culture, to be absolutely truthful, not necessarily be loyal, i think here the value is being an integral person than telling a falsehood.

  • Deep Biswas

    Sudarshan was obviously a cuckold! He probably had a threesome fetish which has not been mentioned anywhere. Who knows? I doubt that these sexual ‘anomalities’ are imported from the west. :-D

    • Ketan

      An anomality is a perversion of sorts. One should ideally call them different rather than anomalous. If Sudarshan was a cuckold, it was his personal wish, and we have to keep off his personal space.

      • Deep Biswas

        You are obviously some dumb troll aren’t you?

  • Ketan

    I fully agree with Sumedha and Shruti Tiwari and Raj Arora below. We do not know for sure whether this incident really happened. However, it must make us relook at the presently structured institution of marriage and companionship, in our own ways. Maybe its time to look at Polyamory as also an acceptable way of life. The institution of marriage as we know it, is anyways unravelling. Does not mean we jump into each others beds. But it does mean that we relook at what we really want out of a relationship and what is it that we hold onto out of insecurity. And by the way, cuckoldry is very common in India.