Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, Feb. 13, 2011

This is a story from Greek mythology. The nymph Thetis fell in love with and married a human called Peleus. They had a son called Achilles. Thetis being a nymph was immortal. She wanted her son to be immortal too. So she took the newborn Achilles and dipped him in the waters of the River Styx. This river separates the land of the living from the land of the dead. It would make Achilles’ skin impervious to all weapons. Unfortunately, to dip Achilles in the water, Thetis had held him by his ankles. The part that she held was not touched by the magical water. That part, the ankle in general and the heel in particular, remained vulnerable to weapons. Eventually, Achilles’ enemies took advantage of this vulnerable spot to kill him. Paris, prince of Troy, shot an arrow that struck Achilles’ heel. Thus despite all efforts of Thetis, Achilles died as all humans do.

Now this story is from Hindu mythology. Gandhari’s son Duryodhan was preparing for a fight until death with the mighty Bhima. Gandhari feared for her son: he would surely die, not only because he was unrighteous but because he was not as physically strong as Bhima. She was determined to save her son. Gandhari had spent all her life with a blindfold around her eyes. She had done so on the day of her marriage in order to share her husband’s blindness. Because of this, her eyes contained great power. If she removed  her blindfold, the power retained in her eyes would be transferred to the first thing she saw. “Before you go into battle, son,” she told her son, “come before me without any clothes so that I can look upon your body. Every part I see will become impervious to weapons.” Duryodhan did as commanded. But he was embarrased to come before his mother totally naked. So he covered his groin and hips with a wide banana leaf tied at the waist. When he came before Gandhari, she removed her blindfold and looked upon her son for the first time in her life. On seeing the leaf around his waist she wept. “Oh my son,” she said, “What have you done? Now a portion of your body will be vulnerable to weapons. Your enemies will strike you there.” Sure enough, Bhima struck Duryodhan on his thighs (a metaphor for groin?), which did not have the power of Gandhari’s eyes, as a result of which Duryodhan bled to death.

Two stories from two different parts of the world. Perhaps the story came to India from Greece or went to Greece from India, via the armies of Alexander or via the Indo-Greek rulers who followed Alexander, whose influence stretched right up to Mathura 2000 years ago. Or perhaps these are simply two cultural expressions of an universal emotion of ambitious parents trying to save their vulnerable children.

Even today in the political, Bollywood and business arenas, we hear of fathers and mothers doing everything in their power to prop up the careers and fortunes of their sons and daughters. Like Thetis and Gandhari they desperately hope against eventuality and they struggle against fate. But eventually, a parent only gives life to a child, but cannot shape his or her destiny.