Sex and Gender
in the World's Greatest Poem
India’s greatest epic, The Mahabharata, is, arguably, the longest poem ever written. Authored by Krishna Dvaipayana, more commonly known as Veda Vyasa, the poem tells the tale of the creation of India – the war of wars between the Pandava brothers and their cousins, the Kaurava clan. One minor section of the epic, Stree Parva – also known as the “Book of the Women” – tells the saga of the bereaved women upon the devastated Kurukshetra battlefield. Detailing the horrors of the mothers Gandhari and Kunti among the ravaged ground, the chapter has been criticized for its shockingly small content concerning the subject it supposedly discusses, women. “The crux of the matter is that even great Vedavyasa could not write what is actually implied by the title… the writer of the epic was male, after all. His pen refused to move in shame, and that is why the male poet has left these stories out,” wrote Jyotirmee Devi in her novel The River Churning. Indeed, the presentation of women in The Mahabharata has generated a mixture of explosive responses by many critics. The characters mentioned, however, are too often the central female characters belonging to the Kaurava or Pandava families, such as Kunti (mother of the Pandavas), Draupadi (wife of the Pandavas) and Gandhari (mother of the Kauravas). While such characters are entirely complex and worthy of study, rarely do we find full analysis of the women in the periphery – those whose actual moments of action in the epic may be few, but whose effects are lasting.
In this essay, I will discuss the character of two of these “other” women – namely, Hidimbi and Amba – figures whose presence alone changes the course of the epic’s majestic narrative. As the roles these women play are highly complex in scope, I will analyze them using very different Mahabharata versions, as well as two different styles of contemporary critical perspectives: ideological and feminist. The versions of the epic I have chosen are as follows: J.A.B. Buitenen’s scholarly, articulately organized translation; Chakravarthi V. Narasimhan’s condensed translation based on selected verses, and most importantly, the “popular culture” version by Kamala Subramaniam. The last rendering is extremely important to my analysis of the women’s roles, as Subramaniam proudly proclaims it to be a “free translation….in simple straightforward English.” (viii) Indeed, aside from the fact that her ‘modern, mass-culture’ version not only appeals to the contemporary analysis I will be employing, Subramaniam – writing as an Indian woman – presents a much-needed ‘indigenous’ feminist perspective. Critical sources I shall draw upon include post-Marxist theorist Mikhail Bakhtin as well as queer feminist critic Chris Straayer. By analyzing the roles of these two women from the perspectives of today’s cultural analysis, I intend to prove that while there may be only ONE explicitly-titled “woman” chapter in the epic, the roles of Hidibi and Amba not only willfully alter the socially-divided society within the epic, but also offer liberation from its constraints.
The tale of the rakshasi demon Hidimbi (or Hidimba, as she is called in the van Biutenen and Narasimhan versions) occurs in the epic’s first book, the Adi Parva. Her entry immediately follows the Pandava brothers’ escape from the burning house of lacquer in the city of Varanavata. Pandava brother Bhima, the strongman hulk of the group, has managed to carry his mother Kunti and all of his brothers to safety, eventually reaching a dense forest where they begin sleeping through the night. Van Buitenen summarizes the events that follow:
A man-eating rakshasa “smells Kunti and the Pandavas and sends his sister Hidimba to fetch them. She falls in love with Bhima… Yudhistra intervenes. She asks to marry Bhima, and Yudishtra [oldest Pandava brother] agrees if she brings him back every night. They make love all around the world. She gives birth to a rakshasa boy, named Ghatotkaca, who becomes a favorite with the Pandavas; then mother and son leave them. Ghatotkaca promises to come whenever he is needed.” (van Buitenen 294, verse references not included)
In order to analyze Hidimbi’s role, let us first look at the post-Marxist theory of Mikhail Bakhtin. His principle of Carnival, succinctly stated, demonstrates how marginalized underclass-subcultures can experience, for at least a moment, the joys and privileges of the mainstream, through an exaggerated, grotesque subversion of the treats and rewards the privileged classes take for granted. Carnival is often always vulgar, always extreme. It frequently employs the most base of cultural elements – those the privileged class revile (but implicitly relish) – such as over-the-top sexuality, fleshiness, physical consumption, immoderation. These elements are used to ensure visibility, if only for a brief period. Bakhtin states that the continual display of such Carnival – with its heightened, frightening grotesqueness -- brings the underclass to the forefront of society, ultimately promoting visibility, and therefore social change, in the long run.
It is, in short, a “rehearsal for the revolution.” (Wofford 343)
Through this principle, we can see that Hidimbi’s role is not simply that of a rakshasi woman, who, after leaving her family, must be dutifully accepted into the Pandava fold. For it is not the mere “acceptance” by which Hidimbi gets Bhima. As the racialized other, the rakshasi is a demonic subcaste in the world of the high caste Kshatriya Pandavas. Hidimbi zealously pursues Bhima (an ideological representative of the upper class) by willfully winning the affections of Yudishtra, and later, Mother Kunti. And in all these venues, ‘excess’ becomes the key ingredient. Her hyper-physicalized form -- “her dark form draped in chaste white, she was beautiful to charm anyone” (Subramaniam 75) and her dramatic proposal, spell out the exaggerated means for her pursuit, culminating in the final “making love around the world” episode.
“[Hidimbi] made love to the Pandava… in secret corners of the woods, on mountain ridges blossoming with trees, by lovely ponds abloom with lotus and water lily, on river islands…by the waters of Lake Manasa where there is fruit and flower in all seasons, where she assumed a superb body and made love to the Pandava.” (van Buitenen 301)
Indeed, this omnipresent lovemaking and sexual release are pivotal in the Carnival release. For Hidimbi has not only transcended class division by wiping away the boundaries between her demon-caste and the pandava caste, she has also ensured the Pandavas’ ultimate redemption through the child he has with Bhima, Ghatotkaca. It is in this form of this Rakhasa-son where we fully see the Bakthninian notion of social revolution.
The importance of Carnival lies in its celebration of the Grotesque Body – spilling, fleshy, gaping. The extreme excess of this body is connected to the idea of the collective, wherein all those marginalized can – and must – join in to stake their claim. This is in contrast to, as Bakhtin puts it, the Classical Body, concretely signified by the Renaissance ideal of Michaelangelo’s David. In this carefully conceived body of “beauty,” there are rigid lines – the muscularity is perfectly etched, every physical aspect (from bicep to thigh) strict and forcibly maintained in its specific order. Bakhtin construed of this body as the epitome of privileged, individual rule, as opposed to the disproportionate, overabundant, too-full flesh and the open holes (open lips, open anus, all orifices open) of the Grotesque Body, symbolizing a socialist utopia for all the masses of the underclass to take their place and be counted in society.
The “Grotesque Body” is Ghatotkaca:
He was a terrifying sight, squint-eyed, large-mouthed, needle eared, loathsome-bodied, dark red-lipped, sharp-tusked, and powerful… Inhuman, though born from a human, of terrible speed and great strength, he surpassed the Pisacas and other demons as he surpassed human beings. (ibid.)
This fleshy, “overabundant” son is indeed the physical manifestation of the Carnivalesque. Nowhere do we find references to him as being “beautiful,” or “well-proportioned;” instead, he is “terrifying” and “fearful.” More importantly, we are informed that he was born the very day he was conceived, and was granted the power to assume as many shapes as possible. In other words, this “Grotesque Body” does not have any gestation period – instead, it does, quite concretely, emerge simultaneously with the explosive, unrepentant sexuality of his mother.
In the end, Carnival itseld has often been criticized for being a less-than-powerful tool for social revolution because, by appearing only once in a while and falling back to the ground, it actually succeeds in reaffirming the mainstream status-quo: let the marginalized folks have their day; they’ll be gone after the Carnival is done! Indeed, rather than overturning the hierarchy, Carnival has been criticized for offering the privileged class a ‘safety valve’ whereby their status continues to firmly exist.
This perspective complicates itself in Hidimbi’s story. Upon wedding Bhima, she is told to abide by an extremely important restriction. “Yudishtra said, ‘O Lady with the speed of fancy! You two may sport as you will during the day, but you must always bring him back every night.” (Narasimhan 33) Here then, the ‘safety-valve’ critique is clearly evidenced. Hidimbi’s marriage with Bhima, in this translation, is even invalidated by being referred to as mere “sport” -- and is allowed to exist only if she brings him back every night. Even more explicit is van Biutenen’s version, in which Yudhistra actually states: “Abide by the Law.” (300) The Carnival, therefore, ends at night, and more importantly, once the son is delivered, must end permanently.
Still, the fact remains: though Hidimbi herself can no longer physically be with Bhima, her son Ghatotkaca – the “Grotesque Body” incarnate – eventually saves the Pandavas in the epic’s Great War. The enemy Karna is forced to use his Sakti weapon to kill the fearsome Ghatotkaca, due to the latter’s devastating demolition of the Kaurava army. Ghatotkaca thus emerges as the savior – Carnival has served its purpose. Perhaps it is no surprise that Hidimbi – not Draupadi – is, in effect, the first Pandava wife.
Ultimately, then, the figure of Hidimbi, the demon of exaggerated maneuvers, of erotic excrescence – who wins the fiercest Pandava, and gives birth to a child who would later save him (and his army) – offers a thrilling representation of the ‘rehearsal for the revolution’…
that eventually saw its opening night performance.
Amba’s story presents one of the most complex presentations of women in the entire epic. Her saga begins in the Adi Parva, in which Bhishma, a famed warrior who has taken the vow of celibacy, decides to marry off his younger brother Vicitravirya, and goes to the syyamvara wedding (in which many princes attend the ceremony to vie for their brides) held by the King of Kasi for his three daughters, Amba, Ambika, and Ambaalika. The exceptional chariot-warrior Bhisma, asserting the Law wcih holds “that the bride is the best who is carried off by force,” abducts the three daughters, fights off all princes, and duels with the powerful King Salva, who is ruthlessly defeated.
However, while the wedding of the three to Vicitravirya is being prepared, the eldest daughter Amba confesses to Bhisma:
“In my hear I had chosen King Salva of Saubha to be my husband, and he had chosen me; it was also my father’s wish. I wish to have elected him at the bridegroom choice. You know the Law: now that you know this, you must do as the Law dictates.” (van Buitenen 230)
Bhisma allows Amba to go back to King Salva. However, when she lovingly returns to Salva, she is brutally dismissed; he will not take her back since, he affirms, she already has been taken by Bhisma. Even with her pleas, Salva abandons her, “like a serpent casting off its slough.” (Narasimhan 116) Now the story takes different turns in different versions. Nrasimhan writes that, immediately following Salva’s rejection, Amba vows revenge against Bhisma, and discusses the events with forest hermits. Eventually she finds another powerful warrior, Parasurama, who takes her back to Bhima, and both the sage and Amba jointly ask Bhisma, the celibate one, to marry her. After all, she has nowhere else to go. Bhisma, having taken his vow of celibacy, rejects her; Parasurama battles him, only to lose. In the Subramaniam rendering, however, events are altered. She writes that Amba, immediately after being abandoned by Salva, does not first vow revenge against Bhisma and scour the forest for hermits. Instead, she travels alone back to Bhisma:
“With her heart filled with pain and humiliation, Amba retraced her steps to Hastinapura and stood in the presence of Bhisma. Tears were running down her face. He saud: “What ails thee, fair maiden? I am surprised to see you here. I sent you to Salva. Why have you come back?” Amba said: “my journey was fruitless….Salva looks on me as his sister now. He says that a man who wins a girl in a fight is her lawful husband. You took me by my right hand and placed me in your chariot and later fought with all the kings there. You, I hear, must marry me. I have no one now.” (Subramaniam 13)
It is only after Bhisma rejects these pleas, that she seeks the hermits, and brings Parasurama to beg Bhisma to marry her.
In either version, however, Amba leaves the defeated Parasurama and performs a terrible penance to kill Bhisma. In the condensed Narasimhan version, Lord Shiva emerges and grants her boon, saying that in her next birth she will slay Bhisma.
Subramaniam tells, however, that the first book she receives is from Lord Shiva’s son, Shanmukha, who offers her a garland of lotuses, stating that any person who wears It will kill Bhisma. After all the powerful kings refuse to ear the garland in fear of Bhisma – even, at last, the brave Panchala king Drupada – she in frustration, flings the garland around a pillar in the court of Drupada. Nobody picks it up. Disgusted with what she considers he ineptitude of all the kinds, she again performs penance, and this time Shiva himself appears, granting the important boon: she will be born as a girl and emerge as a warrior in the childless Drupada house, and she will remember her mission. She then burns herself, ending her life as Amba. Lord Shiva tells Drupada he will at last have an heir, but with one clause: “Your son will be both male and female.”
Amba is thus reborn, as a daughter ‘of great beauty’ to Drupada. She is named Sikhandini, and – though born a female – she is raised as a male, even being wedded to the King Kiranyavarma. However, as it becomes known that she is really female, Sikhandini decides to kill herself, but before this happens, with the help of a cosmic magician she fully changes her sex, adopting the name Sikhandi – and vowing, each day, to kill Bhisma. Sikhandi then joins the war to fight against him.
In the Udyoga Parva, after being asked why he will not kill the Panchala warrior Sikhandi, Bhisma tells the story of Amba to his Kaurava army. Then in the Bhisma Parva, as he continues to weak terror on the Pandava army, a weary Bhisma finally releases this secret to Youdishtrra, telling how his demis must occur:
“O son of Pandu…let Arjuna, brave in battle and clad in mail, keep Sikhandi before him, and attack me from behind with his sharp shafts. When I see that inauspicious omen, in the form of one who was woman before, I will never strike back. Taking advantage of that opportunity, let Arjuna quickly pierce me on all sides with his shafts.” (Narasimhan 136)
Thus Bhisma finally dies, allowing the Pandavas to win the war. And although the arrows of Arjuna are the surface-level causes of his death, it is Amba on the battlefield, now as Sikhandi, who ultimately causes his slaying – her ancient mission finally fulfilled.
To understand the complexities of Amba – and her transformation – let us look at the concept of the phallic femme/medusan femme dichotomy, which offers an intriguing perspective in the field of contemporary feminist criticism. Succinctly stated, the two ‘femmes’ present the two ways women can assert their power in a male-dominated superstructure. The phallic femme achieves power by taking on ‘masculine’ conventions/codes and subverting them. She adopts traditional male characteristics, entering the system of ‘maleness’ to subvert its entire structure from within the structure itself.
In contrast, the medusan femme, like the mythical gorgon from which its name is derived, relies entirely on her own, independent ‘female’ essence to achieve power: no traditional ‘male’ attributes, no attempts into the masculine landscape. Rather, this “Medusa” – drawing from her raw, unadulterated ‘femaleness’ – asserts her power as a woman, and as a woman alone.
This dual pronged theory of female construction is largely espoused by theorist Chris Straayer, who details how the two femme forms can be appropriated by a male subject, or as she says, performer. She dubs this performer the “She-man”:
“What happens when the male performer…exercises his prerogative to appropriate the phallic femme’s masquerade or the Medusan body? He finds himself a split personality, a schizophrenic sign combining disbelief and an aesthetic of “his-teric”,” ricocheting signifiers. This is the She-man, whose sexual power depends not on the ostensibly stable male body but on embraced incongruity; he is the site of a “nervous” breakdown, the utter collapse of the most basic binary opposition (male and female) into postmodern irrelevance.” (Straayer 213)
Amba is the She-man.
However, she is much more than that. For in Amba we not only see the ‘She-manifestation’ that Straayer discusses, but we also see a potent conflation of the phallic femme and the medusan femme. Having been rejected by both Salva and Bhisma, Amba vows to perform the one task that even the hyper-masculine entity of Parasurama failed to do: slay Bhisma. More importantly, the state of the garland, as addressed by Suubramaniam, demonstrates Amba at her medusan apex: after tirelessly pleading with the kings to wear the garland, she is ultimately disgusted by the ‘male’ weakness she sees around her, and she finally places the garland on the pillar of Drupada’s court, consequently using her raw female power to receive the desired boon from Lord Shiva.
States critic Shakambari Jayal, in her analysis of Amba’s female asceticism: “The austerities performed by Amba where beyond the capacities of Rishis.” (Jayal 23) One could ask, though, why didn’t Amba herself wear the garland? Because that would involve entering he constructed system of maleness – phallic appropriation. As the medusan femme, she would never resort to anything other than her inherent power: she is to fulfill her mission on her OWN terms.
And that she does. After her death by fire, she emerges as Drupada’s daughter Sikhandini. Here she becomes the phallic femme. Entirely working within male designated conventions, Sikhandini the female fully subverts the masculine performance. Not only does she learn the arts of war – particularly archery – she also weds a woman in the tradition/heterosexual schema. From this phallic femme she finally undergoes a ‘complete’ change of gender: she becomes the She-man. And as Straayer says, his figure “depends not on the ostensible stable male body but on embraced incongruity.” And indeed, Sikhandi, representing all that once was, and is, him/her – offers the perfect collapse of the age-old opposition of male and female into“postmodern irrelevance.” Amba, as an explosion of the phallic and medusan femme. as well as the She-man, is arguably the most complex ‘woman’ in the epic. But make no mistake: although Amba must emerge as a biological ‘male’ to fight Bhisma in the battlefield, it is precisely because she is a female that Bhisma is killed.
In the end, Amba’s effect in the epic – as Gorgon, as Phallic Goddess, as She-man – is far greater than any one gender can handle.
Endgame: The Stree Parva
If there is one major flaw with the Stree Parva, it is the name itself. The chapter in which Mother Kunti and the women of the two houses mourn the losses of the warriors, should have been called “The Book of Mourning.” As Devi writes: “The Stree Parva, despite its name, is really an account of the tragedy of both men and women. It is a tale of death and bereavement, the agony of separation which touched relationships at all levels, a terrible grief which engulfed them all – fathers, sons, brothers, friends.” (Devi xxiv)
Indeed, as is witnessed, there is much more female presence in the great epic than merely in the Stree Parva. And much more about the women who are mentioned in the Parva, such as Pandava Mother Kunti and Kaurava Mother Gandhari, who upon seeing their slain sons, curse the gods.
It is true that the chapter blatantly address the conception of female power through the process of extreme sorrow. Yet, in the roles of women-outside-of-center, we have found that stunning female power has happened throughout the entire epic itself. Hidimbi’s conquest of Bhima, achieved by her Carnival use of transforming physicality and exaggerated movement, not only exploded the caste and race boundaries of the marriage system itself, but also symbolized the power of such social pluralism, through the very creation of her own physically-manifested Grotesque Body: Ghatotkaca, the demon son who saved both his father and the entire army for which fought. But Hidimbi is not alone in triumphant female transgression. Through the profoundly complicated role of Amba, gender codes – and identities – have been shifted and destroyed, and reborn anew. Her status as both medusan and phallic femme, as well as She-man, destroy the boundaries within her society. It is truly intriguing that her world, maintaining a cultural schema in which “the feelings of an abducted girl” (Jayal 242) are brutally rejected, is, ultimately, entirely reconditioned by her own powerful vow of vengeance.
Though there may be only one explicitly-dubbed Stree Parva in The Mahabharata, the shouts of Hidimbi and Amba remind us that if the name of the chapter had been correctly titled, they would have had leading roles.
For, ultimately, these two women, drawn from the periphery, provide nothing less than a remarkably subversive – and liberating – vision of female strength, one in which ‘mourning’ is not the only way to exert power.
Carstairs, G. Morris. The Twice-Born. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1961.
Devi, Jyotirmoyee. The River Churning (Epar Ganga Opar Ganga). Delhi: Kali for Women, 1995.
Jayal, Shalambari. The Status of Women in the Epics. Delhi: Motilala Banarsidas, 1966.
Narasimhan, Chakravarthi V. The Mahabharata: An English Version Based on Selected Verses. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965.
Straayer, Chris. “The She Man: Post-modern Bi-Sexed Performance.” In The Paradigm Wars. Jane Gaines, Ed. Durham: Duke University Press, 1992.
Subramaniam, Kamala. Mahabharata. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1985.
Van Buitenen, J.A.B. The Mahabharata: The Book of the Beginning. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1973.
Wofford, Susanne L. Case Studies of Contemporary Criticism. New York: Bedford Books, 1994.