Feminine Mythique History & Culture

King’s wife, but not queen of his heart

Kings in myth and epic often have more than one wife. It is fairly typical that while one of the wives has been married for political gain or for wealth, the king has another wife whom he loves — the king is divided in mind, heart and body as well. Kausalya’s lament when Rama is exiled is as much about herself as it is about her son’s misfortune. She says that she had never had Dasarata’s heart and so waited her entire life to get the respect and prestige accorded to the mother of the king. But with Rama’s exile, even that glorious position has been lost to her. Dasarata’s remorse at succumbing to the younger and lovelier Kaikeyi’s outrageous whim does take him back to Kausalya. But even before she can savour her triumph, he dies in her arms.

Kunti chooses Pandu at her swayamvara and Pandu later marries Madri in order to extend the boundaries of his empire. Madri looks down on Kunti for being from a cattle-herding family (she is a Yadava) and Kunti has to live with the disdain from her co-wife. Cursed Pandu persuades Kunti to share her boon for producing sons with the gods so that his favoured wife would also have the pleasures of motherhood. Later, Pandu can no longer contain his desire during the sap-rich spring time. It is Madri with whom he chooses to sleep. When he has to die as a result of his sexual act, Madri claims the right to become sati. Kunti is left with five sons, living as as an appendage to power in the palace and the kingdom of which she could have been queen.

Satyabhama was wedded to Krishna in a complex exchange of loyalty, recompense and wealth (including the Syamantaka jewel) whereas Rukmini was abducted by Krishna to save her from being married off to the (apparently) wicked Sisupala.

Once, Satyabhama is persuaded by Narada to auction Krishna and then buy him back with the measure of his weight in gold and jewels. However much wealth Satyabhama places on the scale, Krishna remains heavier. Then, Rukmini places a single tulsi leaf on the pile of gold and at once, the scale tips and Krishna is reclaimed by love, rather than by money.

Heavenly tree

The incident of the parijata tree is equally poignant. In one version of the story, Krishna plants the heavenly tree such that all the fragrant flowers fall into the garden of Rukmini, his favoured wife.

In another, the flowers belong to Satyabhama, and so, to make Rukmini happy, Krishna says the tree will bloom only when he is with her. Satyabhama can own the flowers but their presence means that her husband is with her rival.

Dasarata, Pandu and Krishna appear unmindful in their constant reminders to one wife that they love another. But for all that we naturally sympathise with the unloved wife, we must remember that the king is equally unfaithful to the woman that he does love.

The writer works with myth, epic and the story traditions of the sub-continent

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2021 4:14:11 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/epics-and-myths-highlight-the-many-wives-of-kings-and-their-rivalries/article18822660.ece

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