May the Most Fertile Win


Published on 11th May, 2014, in The Speaking Tree

One day, during a yoga class, one of the students was counting the number of times he was doing a particular asana. The teacher stopped the student saying, “This is not a competition. This is yoga. Don’t count. Just focus on the experience of doing it.”

This attitude is sadly missing in our democracy, which is based on counting, and is all about notching up votes, capturing more and more seats in the assembly. It is competitive, full of fierce rivalries. It is based on the assumption that one with most votes is most popular hence most worthy of managing the country. Popularity has become the measure of capability. This makes democracy much like ancient fertility rituals where more was good.

In the Vedic mantras we find that the yajaman prays to the devas and hopes to get more cows, more horses, more grain, more gold and more sons, because having more made him richer and more powerful than everyone else around him. Vedanta philosophy, however, questions this logic. Stories are told to make us aware that what matters more than quantity is quality. Its not how many asanas we do; the benefit of yoga comes from how we do each one.

In the Mahabharata, keeping score is the cause of many battles. It starts generations before, at the dawn of time, when Kashyapa is given the task of populating the world with various creatures through his many wives. His wife, Kadru, says, “I want many children.” Another wife, Vinata, says, “I want just two, but who will be stronger than all of Kadru’s children put together.” Kadru’s children turn out to be snakes or nagas while Vinata’s child (the first one is delivered prematurely and so is malformed) turns out to be a hawk or garuda. The snakes are more numerous but the hawk is much more strong. This results in a lifetime of rivalry between the insecure snakes and the powerful eagle.

This pattern repeats itself later in the epic. Shatanu’s first wife, the river-goddess Ganga, gives him just one son while his second wife, the fisherwoman Satyavati, bears two. The only son of the first wife, Devavrata, is strong but is asked to stay celibate and give up claims on the throne so that the sons of the second wife can inherit the throne. But both sons of Satyavati prove to be useless. The first is killed by a gandharva and the second dies childless despite being given two wives. Thus numerical superiority does not grant the desired results and ends up creating a mess.

Much later, Pandu is unable to father children and so begs his wife, Kunti, to take advantage of her mantra and call upon devas who will give her a child. She calls upon Yama, Vayu and Indra and begets Yudhishtira, Bhima and Arjuna. Pandu asks for more sons, but Kunti says she cannot it use it more than three times. So Pandu begs her to share the mantra with his second wife, Madri. Kunti does as advised but is quite irritated when using one mantra Madri begets two children by simply calling the Ashwin Kumars who always come in a pair. She refuses to give Madri the mantra again as she wants to be the mother of more children. This little detail from the Sanskrit work is often avoided in popular retellings of the Mahabharata as we find the idea of a competitive Kunti unappealing. This tale also reveals the competitive anxiety of Pandu when he seeks more and more sons, for he wants to have more sons than his very virile brother, Dhritarashtra. Unfortunately, Dhritarashtra’s wife, Gandhari, is so upset that Kunti bears children before her that she makes her midwife strike her pregnant belly with an iron bar and force the child out. What she delivers instead is a ball of flesh, cold as iron. This she divides and transforms, with the aid of Rishi Vyasa, to get hundred sons, 98 more than Madri, 97 more than Kunti, 100 more than Pandu, to establish her and her husband’s superiority.

The counting continues as the sons of Pandu, the Pandavas, and the sons of Dhritarashtra, the Kauravas, continuously compete. Arjuna keeps securing wives for himself such as Uloopi, Chitrangada and Subhadra and in Tamil folk Mahabharata he has ‘more wives than stars in the sky’ including the Amazon princess Alli. We wonder if this stems from his competitive spirit being challenged when he is asked to share Draupadi, the bride he won, with his brothers.

And finally, in the Kurukshetra war, using various political tricks, the Kauravas end up with 11 armies, 4 more than the 7 armies of the Pandavas. They have more, and still they lose, for they reject Krishna.