Published on 14th March, 2021, in Mumbai Mirror.
The Bhil Bharata is a tribal version of the Mahabharata. There is much it shares with the classical Sanskrit Mahabharata. However, when it comes to women, it has an altogether different take. In this retelling, Goddess Shakti takes the form of an eagle and impales herself on the trident of the seven sages. From its bones is born Gandhari, the mother of the Kauravas. From its flesh and blood, is born Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas. One night the Pandavas discover the true nature of their mother Kunti. They find the gods, including Indra, coming down to earth and sweeping the floor. They prepare a seat for their mother, who arrives riding a wild buffalo with a lamp in her hand. This indicates that she is a goddess, revered even by the devas. Later, the five Pandavas find in a plantain grove, a fully-grown woman, Draupadi, inside a banana plant. Since all five of them find her simultaneously, she becomes their common wife. Bhim discovers that the eldest brother, Yudhishtir, fears his wife, massages her feet and fans her all night. On inquiry, Yudhishtir shows Bhim the true nature of Draupadi. They hide in a banyan tree and at night, find gods descending from the heavens and preparing a seat of gold for Draupadi, who arrives on a tiger, with a lamp in her hand. The Pandavas learn that their wife, like their mother, is a goddess.
Only the phrase used for the goddess in Bhil literature is ‘Dayan Devi’. This reveals an ambiguous relationship of the goddess being both malevolent and benevolent. In one explanation, she exists to cause the destruction of those ‘civilised’ folks who arrogantly lay claim to the forests and seek to turn it into their habitation. As goddesses, women’s desire is paramount and sovereign, and men exist to satisfy them. Indrani, the wife of Indra, gets angry when Indra does not admonish the seven sages who make sexual passes at her. She decides to find another husband. The Kauravas refuse, the Pandavas refuse, and so she marries young Abhimanyu, the son of Arjun. In another story, the Pandavas try to collect water from a lake for a ritual. The Jal Jogini tells them they cannot collect the virgin waters unless they agree to marry her. Four Pandava brothers refuse to marry her and so they die. But the youngest, Sahadeva, agrees to marry her, but only after the ritual is complete. She agrees and brings the other brothers back to life. In another episode, Arjun has to go to the netherworld, to the Naglok or land of the serpents, to find special gold. But there he is bitten by snakes and he dies. The snake princess finds Arjun. She is smitten by his looks and decides to revive and marry him. Unfortunately, the father does not give her the nectar of immortality. This angers her and she threatens to immolate herself unless her father does what she desires. The father has no choice but to revive Arjun, and let her marry his daughter. Perhaps the most scandalous of the stories is where Vasuki goes to earth in search of the woman, a strand of whose hair lands up in Nag-lok. The woman turns out to be Draupadi. Vasuki wants to marry her. Arjun protests, so Vasuki just plucks a hair from his moustache, binds him up and hangs him on a peg on the wall. He then ravishes Draupadi. Draupadi soon gets bored of Vasuki. So she enlists Arjun’s help to get rid of him. In the story, Arjun is angry with Vasuki for having relations with his wife, but at no point does he expect fidelity from his wife. In fact, she has the liberty to choose any man, and he strives hard to be the man of her choice. A similar theme is found in the Bhil version of Krishna’s relationship with Radha. In the Bhil version, Krishna and Radha are married. But soon after marriage, Krishna has to go to Dwaraka. This angers Radha who proceeds almost immediately to have an affair with a handsome bangle-seller, who eventually turns out to be Krishna himself. In this story, Krishna is not upset with Radha’s infidelity. He understands that a woman who is not treated well by her husband, has the right to go to another man. Most ‘modern’ men certainly do not believe in the sovereignty of women’s desire. They look down on such ‘tribal’ mindsets. This reveals how so-called cultured and civilised societies are essentially patriarchal.