Monday, 5 December 2011

Draupati & Shikhandini- extract from my novel 'Samlee's daughter'.

In the Mahabharatha, every individual or action has its double or counterpart.
Draupati, the wife of the Pandavas, faces her severest test when Duhshaasan- basest of, her cousins-in-law, the Kauravas- seeks to strip her of her sari in full view of everyone in the audience hall. Her husbands are powerless to come to Draupati’s aid because they themselves have been gambled[1] away into slavery. In the extremity of her distress, Draupati appeals to Lord Krishna- who performs a miracle such that her sari is infinitely lengthened. Thus Duhshasan’s dastardly ploy comes to naught.
The counterpart to this episode is to be found in the story of, Draupati’s sister, Shikhandini.
King Drupada, both girls’ father, had brought Shikhandini up as if she were a boy. He dressed her in manly garments and married her to the daughter of a powerful monarch whose help he needed in order to avenge himself on Drona Bharadvajya.
For obvious reasons, Shikhandini was not able to consummate her marriage. Her father-in-law, becoming suspicious, sends a team of courtesans to test the virility of his daughter’s supposed husband. When the truth becomes known, as now seems inevitable, the powerful King will destroy Drupada’s kingdom. Shikhandini is placed in a very distressing situation. Through no fault of her own, she seems fated to bring down disaster upon her father.
From another point of view, both Draupadi’s and, her sister, Shikhandini’s threatened disrobing draws attention to what they lack- viz. the one decisive counter-blast to the Evil or Avaricious eye- the erect penis. I am not going to dwell on the Freudian ‘castration complex’ or the notion that fetishism is the reparative worship of the lost maternal phallus. To do so would be to indulge in false reductionism, for such notions, it seems to me, belong to an order of cognition different from that at which the ‘Evil Eye’ is encountered, or the Power Politics of the gaze operates. Rather, I appeal to a simpler paleo-logic, or proto-structuralism, which arises from the fact that whereas motherhood is perceived as a splitting, fatherhood is seen as a doubling- such as happens in mirrors. It defeats the Evil eye by pointing to the eternal recurrence of the same. There is a tradition (surely apocryphal), quoted in Tariq Ali’s novel on Saladin, to the effect that Hazrat Ali (the Prophet’s son-in-law) commented that, even in his shroud, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) showed this sign- erect and pointing to Heaven- in a particularly robust and glorious fashion. The meaning is- ‘the Evil Eye of the evil-doers, the blowing on knots of the witches, has not triumphed in the least. No matter what happens, the Prophet’s line will survive to press the battle to victory!’
Returning to Shikhandini, you can imagine her distress as she wanders the wilderness. When she returns to her parent’s palace, as she is honour bound to do, what must inevitably transpire is her own dishonour and the kingdom’s destruction. Fortunately, she meets a yaksha(countryside demigod) who offers to change sex with her. This seems to hint at the paratman parivartana- i.e. the technique of swopping selves that Shantideva tells us, and the first chapter of the Mabniogion illustrates, is the simplest, the quickest, but also the foundation and supreme type, of soteriological technique. But, in this case, it seems, the yaksha is merely a silly fellow- a thrill seeker- Shikhanidini gains no soteriological advantage from an exchange so casually and frivolously entered into.
Why is it a yaksha rather than some other sort of supernatural being? The answer, it seems to me, has to do with the two types of clairvoyance[2] mentioned in the Mahabharata. We can relate this duality to another- viz. the war between the birds and the snakes- which is fundamental to the ‘Book of Origins’. Baldly speaking, we can expect a rivalry between soothsayers who take auguries from birds and those who rely upon snakes. In particular, those chthonic oracles who use krait venom to enter a kinaesthetic trance, in which visions are simultaneous with the utterance of the verse prophesies that describe them, may be supposed to be uncongenial to the more Apollonian outlook of the Bird augerers. Rishi Bharadwaja (the father of Drona and founder of my lineage), who authored several verses in the Rg Veda, would appear, if we take his name to mean ‘he whose flag is the skylark’, to be from the Bird faction. Thus, since Shikhandini’s father wishes to take revenge upon Drona Bharadwajya, it is appropriate that an ‘Earth god’, rather than a ‘Sky god’, comes to her aid. However, in noting this, we are merely scratching the surface of a far more thought provoking question- viz. the difference between the two types of clairvoyance.
At this point, perhaps, all we can do is comment the far more lonely- being a pseudo-intellectual, I am tempted to say ‘existential’- nature of Shikhandini’s predicament as compared to that of her sister. Taken together, the Shikandini/Draupati syzygy defines the aporia of the modern Indian woman. However, whereas Draupati- all of whose children are viciously massacred by the son of Drona- retains through all her tragic vicissitudes a direct channel of communication with God; the plight of Shikhandini, especially after her sex-change, is very different. From the viewpoint of the modern Indian woman, Shikhandini (in her previous incarnation as Amba) suffered inexcusably at the hands of Bhishma. It was because of Bhishma’s officious adherence to the most obsolescent code of Patriarchy- an adherence from which he personally drew no profit- that Amba was unable to marry the man of her choice. She swears revenge and enters the sacrificial fire. Ultimately, Bhishma is brought down but it is not Amba’s reincarnation who strikes the blow. Rather, Shikhandin acts merely as a screen (since Bhishma knows Shikhandin is actually female, he will not fire his arrows at her) behind which Arjuna (whose own sex-change was merely by way of a joke) can safely shoot up the notional ‘grand-sire’ till, a human pin cushion, he rests upon a bed of arrows.
In contemporary terms, we can say that the education of women, their entry into the professions, even the occasional Prime Minister or Chief Minister throw up from their ranks, is merely the Shikhandin screen behind which, not Patriarchy is overthrown, but Gandhi, that Bhishma like celibate, is struck down so that the Kali Yuga of Consumerism can commence.
Draupati lost all her children. But, she was not sterile. She was wedded to all the Gods, all the Religions, of India. We can’t tolerate this. It is indecent. She must pick one and then act as the Shikhandin screen behind which her husband can take aim at the original act of self-sacrifice (and to sacrifice the Self is to sacrifice for all) out of which the Nation was born. 
The Shikhandinis of Fundamentalism are sterile. They are cut off from God. But, if you judge things by externals, they prosper, they will continue to prosper. They will have children, fabulous children, Central Casting’s notion of ideal children- phantasmagoria briefly bestowed and then swallowed back by the Mayin of Consumerism. But, Motherhood, in India, means being Mother for all. These Shikhandinis bear children but never become Mothers.
Who then has Power? Which is the incarnation of Shakti? Is it, can it still be, Draupati, in her torn sari, whom we can see every time we visit a village or slum where a communal massacre has taken place; Draupati who has lost all her children- because, in fratricide, it your own ability to be a son that you kill- is it Draupati or is it Shikhandini, the middle-class rural housewife, or urban professional, who tells you “time those fellows were taught a lesson. Getting too big for their boots. Have you read what all is going on in Punjab/Kashmir/your own backyard?”
Of course, everything I’ve written so far is puerile, pro forma, and simply part and parcel of the bogus breast-beating we self-proclaimed ‘intellectuals’ indulge in because we can’t rise to a connected train of thought, or, more to the point, afford a decent brand of whiskey.
The Draupati/Shikhandini syzygy mirrors another, perhaps more basic duality- viz. that between Ganga, mother of Bhishma, and Satyavati, mother of Krishna Dvaipayana (the author of the Mahabharata) and grand-matriarch of the whole Kaurava/Pandava clan. What Ganga symbolises, I think we all know- but it is an ‘unthought known’- but who is this Satyavati, still so solicitous of sons for even her grandsons, whose name derives from the Sanskrit word for Truth? We read that she was once a foul smelling fisher-woman casting her nets into the waters of the Sarasvati- the river, now vanished, which represents intellectual effort. Having said this, it seems, I have said enough. The relationship between the two syzygies, and how they line up with God, seems obvious. But, to understand the eclipse is not the same as being able to navigate its darkness. Better, as I am drunkenly now doing, just raise up a din to frighten off the demon Rahu- that ‘light of the Public which darkens everything’- and compel the restoration of a more solitary Sun.
Thus, hear me intone-
Tho' its mouth be the desert- of salt or of sand
& vain, Dvaipayana[3], the struggle to understand
I salute the Sarasvati which whispers and winds
 Through the echoing caverns of- closed minds.’

[1]    King Yuddhishtra, head of the Pandavas, is depicted in the Mahabharata as the incarnation of Dharma (Ethical Religion). Yet, he gambles away all he owns (not once, but twice!) thus triggering the apocalypse of Kurukshetra. A tragic flaw (hamartia) makes for interesting theatre, but- since Mahabharata is called ‘fifth Veda’- the whole episode seems rather bizarre. Can it be, as Draupati says, God is at fault for making us merely the puppets of Destiny or (as we might put it) slaves to genetic determinism? No, for this episode explicates Rg Veda 10.34.13, in which, because it can lead to strangers putting hands to strip (parimrshanti) your wife, dice-playing is condemned whereasKrshi (Agriculture) is commended. Actually, as self-reliant hunter-gatherers or nomadic pastoralists might point out, both dice-playing and agriculture are a species of gambling. Furthermore, in so far as they represent putting your faith in God, they are of the type of all Theistic devotion- the Theist takes Pascal’s wager not for the chance of Heaven but purely for the buzz of staking his all! Indeed, we prefer that beloved who might reject us to the one who is constrained to reciprocate. However, since Krishi (agriculture) involves collaborative effort as well as reliance on God (for rain) and since, furthermore, it might yield a surplus in which all can share- even animals benefit for they no longer have to be killed for food- Krishi is better. Moreover, since anxiety re. outcome is prolonged, it yields the greater buzz! On the other hand, it is necessary for a Dharma-Raja (Ethical King) to learn probability and game theory. He has to understand- observing the actual ESS (evolutionary stable strategy) matrix obtaining in different social dilemma situations- that the categorical imperative does not return scalar but vector solutions- i.e. there is a range of acceptable moral responses (i.e. life style & livelihood choices) compatible with Ethics and Morality- provided this mix does not diverge from what is indicated for a globally optimal, incentive compatible, equilibrium. Another point is, redistribution of Wealth by arbitrary fiat is not of itself unethical. Since Yuddhistra had previously stated (aanrśamsyam paro dharmah) that the highest Ethical Religion is to compassionately understand and seek to help all other beings, a convention of redistribution of wealth by lot might actually be a good thing. True, the nightmare Borgesian ‘Lottery in Babylon’ appears to us as a Spiritual Dystopia but this is only because Borges adds atrocious details- e.g. the possibility of Society considering you invisible!- which strike at the foundations of our human ethos.  Another point is, even if we really are, by the Geeta of the present Avatar of Evolutionary Biology, irrevocably ‘yantra anirudha’ (i.e. mounted on molecular D.N.A. machines) & thus disabled from mounting ourselves on Yoga, as Lord Krishna advises, still- by the ‘Extended Phenotype’ principle- All interpenetrate All- albeit merely reflexively- & thus, but admitting the Adullamite longings sheltering in the darkest recesses of the heart’s deep cave, each of us is so sovereignly reinforced as to resistlessly storm the citadel of Non-Duality’s synoptic Jerusalem. Incidentally, let me take this opportunity to refute an unworthy suspicion that may have crossed your mind while ploughing through this footnote. I am notdrunk. On the contrary, I’m very very very drunk. There is a difference. Whatchyu lookin at? Wanna fight? Bring it on! Unless, you’re like a girl or something.  Flaubert spoke of Art as the Soul’s condom. Auden, writing of Yeats’ poetry ‘kept from death by his reader’s mourning tongues’, has introduced the notion of all Space-Time as merely a peppermint flavoured prophylactic. I’m not sure where I’m going with this- but it’s something to think about at any rate. Provided, of course, you’re a bona fide woman- not one of those ‘lady boys’ or shit- unless you are, in which case no offence or nothing but like I’ve had a horrible day- or couple of decades. Anyway, call me. We’ll do lunch.
[2]    Thus pratismriti vidya (on the evidence of the raskshogna mantra R.V.7.104) is Theistic in that it is seen as founding the approach of the Deity whose protection is needed from the evil component of the vision. Sayana explains the context as- Vasishta sees the demon (who has devoured all 100 of his sons) wearing his own form saying “I am Vasishta, you are the demon!” Since clairvoyance is commonly thought to occur by exchange of personalities, the risk of permanent possession (as, I believe, is posed by the cākşuşi vidya offered to Arjuna by a Gandharva intent on making his friend one of his own ‘faery’ order) is combated by an appeal to the Deity. In other words, when experimenting with esoteric mystic faculties, pure undifferentiating Monism could endanger our ethos unless we appeal to embodied God (as guardian of righteousness) to defend us. And, yes, if you must know, I’ve a killer hangover.
[3]   Dvaipayana- Krishna Dvaipayana- the “Dark Island foundling”- also called Ved Vyasa-i.e. compiler of the Vedas- the author of the Mahabharat. The dark, fog bound, island in question lay on the Sarasvati- a river long since swallowed by the desert, or disappeared underground- and which is associated, in Hinduism, with Speech and Learning. Goddess Sarasvati is considered the wife of Lord Brahma- the Creator God and patron of intellectual effort.  The formula ‘Aham Brahmasmi’- ‘I am Brahma’ is one of the mahavakya (great utterances) of Advaita Philosophy. P.S. I will never, never, drink again.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. Thanks for writing it!