Review: Shikhandi and Other Stories They Don’t Tell You!

(Originally posted here with a slight difference)

How many authors do you know who in a volatile political and cultural environment can come up with a book with the very first statement as terse as:

 Beware of a land where celibate men decide what is good sex.

On a second thought, there could not have been a better time to write this post than now, when feminism is gaining traction in our country and we are talking about breaking stereotypes. We are trying to rise above caste-discrimination, questioning long held beliefs that have made us exclude certain sections of society for long.

There could not have been a better time for Devdutt Pattanaik to write his new book either. I am talking about “Shikhandi and Other Tales They Don’t Tell You!” which is DP’s latest release, that mentions different tales from Indian Mythology that are around queerness or discovering queerness. This time DP doesn’t pick a character or an epic for a retelling, but he targets an entire section of mythology that has been conveniently ignored over generations, reasons debatable.

The book begins with simple definitions of queerness, patriarchy, feminism and even mythology, that are pertinent to DP’s writings. He believes in rolling the pitch every time he is about to bowl you over with his writings. While I think queerness is the epicenter of this book, the reason behind writing this book is more about breaking stereotypes of all kinds. Since there couldn’t have been a better aspect to start from than queerness as it is lesser known, mostly misinterpreted, highly doubted and largely ignored, DP hits the core when he picks queerness for the same. The best of all, he doesn’t just justify it as one would initially expect, he rather celebrates it and recognizes its presence over the ages. The book also mentions various examples of Greek and Biblical mythology that are either tangents to or are direct references to queerness, stories that you are less likely to be aware of unless you are a mythologist or an ardent reader of mythology.

As always, this post is not to discuss the stories mentioned in the book and spoil the fun of reading. DP narrates them in a far better manner, maintaining the interest and realizing the sensitivity of the matter at the same time. I write his post to express why you may read, or not read this book in the first place.

Why you may not read this book:

  • You haven’t read any book by DP and mythology is not your thing. If that’s the case, you might not feel motivated to pick “Shikhandi And …..”. But honestly, understanding this book will still not be a challenge in case you pick it. But reading one or two of DP’s books before reading this will help you understand where he comes from. (If you understand the author’s mind even slightly, you enjoy the book heavily). I recommend Jaya, Sita or maybe even Business Sutra. And then reading this book will be icing on the cake.
  • You’re too wise. You’ve realized that it’s only you who matters and no one else does. You’ve realized what your wisdom is THE wisdom and you don’t want to learn any further. (I don’t know why would you even read this post in the first place).
  • You love to stay within your stereotypes. Enough said!

Why you may read this book:

  • The more you have read, the more incomplete you have felt. You have realized that you know far lesser about things than you actually should. You want to explore more.
  • You are an avid reader of mythology, or an ardent fan of DP, or maybe both. You can’t afford not reading it.
  • You have read this post and you have understood it well.

In your quest for wisdom, this book can be one of the crucial steps, bringing to you ideas that you might have never thought of or maybe bringing old ideas with a freshly new perspective.

 

12. The Shattering of Satyavati’s Dreams

Amba was dead, to be born later as Shikhandi in the kingdom of Panchal.

Meanwhile, in Hastinapur, Vichitraveerya was married to Ambika and Ambalika. As was suspected, there was something lacking in Vichitraveerya that kept him from fulfilling the duties of a king in the court and a husband in the bedroom. But Satyavati was determined to see a great line of kings coming from him. She waited and waited. And waited.

One ‘unfine’ day, Vichitraveerya died of a strange disease, without leaving an heir behind. Satyavati’s dreams were in turmoil. The drastic measures that she and her father had taken to assure that her lineage ruled for generations had been rendered fruitless. Hastinapur did not have an heir; she did not have a grandson. Bheeshm, who had sacrificed all pleasures of the world to remove all conflicts in inheritance, was equally aghast.

Satyavati summoned Bheeshm one day. She told him that the need of the hour was that Bheeshm broke his oath of celibacy, got married and gave Hastinapur its heir. But Bheeshm could not make this deal for anything in the world. The oath, that was the basis of his father’s marriage with Satyavati was now an integral part of his life. He was not living a life of his own, he was living a life for Hastinapur. It was an oath he was living.

When nothing worked, Satyavati saw sense in only one solution. That was Niyog. (For more details on Niyog, click here). She summoned her pre-marital son, Ved Vyas, upon agreement with Bheeshm who saw sense in it as Hastinapur was left with no other option. She ordered Vyas to perform Niyog on both the queens to give them sons. Vyas agreed with it but requested for a period of one year, as his long years in forest had made  his body rough and hair matted. The queens could faint at the first sight of a dark ugly hermit. But Satyavati could not wait any longer. She ordered that the process be completed at the earliest.

So, on orders of his mother, Vyas went to Ambika to bear a son on her. She was so horrified at his first sight that she shut her eyes tightly. Now Vyas was a sage, and sages had a hit rate of 200! Of course a son was born, but it was born blind. He was named Dhritrashtra.

Dissatisfied with the first output of the Niyog, Satyavati sent Vyas to Ambalika. Since she knew what happened with Ambika, she did not close her eyes, but the sight of Vyas turned her pale. The son, thus born was pale in appearance. He was named Pandu.

Still dissatisfied that none of the sons were completely healthy, Satyavati sent Vyas again to Ambika. This time the room was kept dark so that Ambika would not have to see Vyas’ face. She would not have had to anyway, as she had sent her maid instead. But Vyas did what he was told to do, irrespective of who was on the receiving end. Contrary to how the two queens had reacted, the maid welcomed Vyas with open arms and without any fear. The son thus born was completely healthy. He was named Vidur. However, he could never become a king as he was born of a maid and not of a queen.

So you see how things are shaping. Satyavati’s dreams were shattered. The sons who could sit on the throne were not completely fit. The one who was born fit could not sit on the throne. Time and again, the throne was calling for its rightful owner, the one who truly deserved to be the king, the last of the Kuru blood, the mightiest of all, the most deserving one – Bheeshm. Satyavati regretted what had happened, but it was too late. Bheeshm would not go back on his oath and Hastinapur would not get a capable king. Poor Hastinapur!

11. Amba’s Pledge for Vengeance

There are times when we change things our way and there are times when we go with the flow. Had Amba gone with the flow, she would have been one of Vichitraveerya’s queens. But the revelation of her love for the prince of Shalva changed things. It ended in nothing but misery for her!

When she reached Shalva, the prince of Shalva refused to marry her on the pretext that she was won over by Bheeshm during the swayamvar. His Kshatriya pride could not accept anything that was given away to him by another Kshatriya. Also, Bheeshm, who won over so many kings single-handed in the court had specifically defeated the prince of Shalva putting him to shame. At that time, Amba kept quiet and didn’t raise voice in protest. On what basis was she expecting Shalva to accept her back then?

Rejected by the love of his life, an exasperated Amba went back to Hastinapur and stormed into the court like Bheeshm had stormed into her swayamvar. She insisted that Bheeshm married her as he had abducted her from the swayamvar. She was certainly not attracted to Bheeshm; she was only finding a way to avenge her humiliation by making Bheeshm break his vow. For a man of honour, nothing is worse than taking back his word, let alone a vow! Of course, Bheeshm put down her request. Neither did his oath allow him to marry, nor did he feel he was responsible for Amba’s situation as he had already declared that he was only representing Vichitraveerya in the swayamvar! In fact, Amba’s participation in the swayamvar with a pre-decided groom was an act of insult for the other kings who were invited.  But Amba was too angry to realize her end of the mistake.

Rejected from all sides, she went to sage Parshuram to seek justice. Parshuram, on hearing Amba’s story ordered Bheeshm to marry her. Bheeshm, though unconditionally reverent towards his teacher, could not agree to this order as this would mean insult to his parents and Hastinapur. He could do anything for his teacher but break his vow.

The following conversation took place:

Parshuram: If you do not marry Amba, then you will have to fight me. If you lose, you marry her. Deal?

Bheeshm: Dear Sir. You know it very well why I am not obeying your orders. Still, if you want me to fight with you, I will. The world knows that you have depleted the earth of Kshatriyas 21 times; but even you know that none of those Kshatriyas were like this student of yours.  Anyway, since I have no option but to fight you, please shower me with blessings for victory.

Parshuram (with a melted heart): Bheeshm, my son! Your politeness has no parallels. Those who are put to fight their elders should always seek their approval according to Dharma. Had you not requested my approval, I would have cursed you for your irreverence. Be blessed my son! Now go and fight. And fight in a way that you make your guru proud.

A terrible fight followed for days in which both were undefeated. Ultimately, Bheeshm was about to release a terrible weapon when a cosmic voice stopped him from releasing it. Parshuram had no counter-weapon for it and its usage would have put Parshuram to shame. That would have been very unbecoming of someone like Bheeshm. Bheeshm politely stopped the fight and said sorry to his teacher. Even Parshuram could not bring justice to Amba.

11. Amba's pledge for vengeance

An indignant Amba took the pledge that if no warrior on earth could help her, then she herself would become the reason of Bheeshm’s death. She performed strict tapasya and invoked the destructive form of God, Shiva, and asked him for a boon to kill Bheeshm. Shiva revealed that for Amba it was impossible to kill Bheeshm in her present life. He gave her a boon that in her next life she would become the reason for Bheeshm’s death. Not wanting to wait for her vengeance, Amba jumped into a pit of fire only to be reborn later as Shikhandi in the kingdom of Panchala.