Mythology for the Millennial: Ancient India's sages have disturbing parallels in the modern world
Meet the Harvey Weinsteins of ancient India: the sages | #MythologyForTheMillennial
Imagine a man so powerful that he was essentially above the law, a man so revered that he could do whatever he liked with no consequences, a man who was so feared for what he could do to you that he could basically do anything he liked. Meet the Harvey Weinsteins of ancient India: the sages. Not only were they second to the gods in their power — and in some cases the sages could even get the better of the gods — they also didn't have to be complete ascetics. They weren't rich, but they could get married, have loads of children and live in any kingdom they liked, all expenses paid.
But while the “saptarishis” (or the seven great sages) were truly remembered as great scholars with several texts of the Vedas credited to them, some are slightly problematic. First of all, none of these saptarishis were born from anything as crude as a woman's womb. Instead they all burst (fully formed, one imagines) out of the head of Brahma, the god who created everything including the caste system. (Thanks, dad!)
Some of them settled down to wife and life and propelled stories forward gently, a sort of Gandalf or Dumbledorian figure, offering advice to the heroes when they needed it.. Others however, mainly contribute to narratives by throwing a big old hissy fit, magic style.
Take the story of the sage Vishvamitra. He was chugging along at his meditations when the god Indra decided to test him — the gods were big on surprise quizzes — and sends Menaka down to earth to seduce him. Menaka was an apsara, a celestial woman created just for sensual pleasure in heaven for men and gods, no word yet on what the women got. Duly seduced, Vishvamitra lives with Menaka for 10 years, and then she eventually has a kid, a daughter named Shakuntala, at which point Vishvamitra's suddenly terrorised by the idea of fatherhood and curses her into becoming super ugly in her next birth. (The baby is abandoned at a local ashram and is herself the subject of a curse many years later, poor thing, but more on that in a bit.) After the whole Menaka debacle, another apsara called Rambha is turned into a rock — Indra tried to prove a point that Vishvamitra hadn't given up his carnal urges and all these poor apsaras were cannon fodder for this debate.
Then there's the sage Gautama. An old man married to a much younger woman called Ahalya, he left her alone for great parts of the day and went off into the forest to do whatever it was sages do. Along comes Indra — he features a lot in these tales, despite being the king of the gods, he also seemed filled with the need to do some mischief — who takes on Gautama's form and has sex with Ahalya. In some stories she sees through it, but is too hot to stop; in later versions, perhaps to preserve her “purity,” she can't tell the difference at all, until the real Gautama reappears. He's pissed, so he turns her into stone and tells Indra that his body is going to be covered with a thousand vulvae as a mark of his shame. (Would they all bleed at the same time, do you think? Did they all come with clitorises? A thousand clitorises doesn't sound like much of a curse, to be honest.) The other gods eventually intervened and the vulvae turned into eyes, which sounds worse.
Now all this is very well, and probably serves as a morality lesson to keep women in their place; know your husband's sex moves well enough that you can easily identify an imposter.
And then you come to the one guy who single-handedly pushed forward stories by his great wrath. The sage Durvasa.
Durvasa's immense hot-headedness shouldn't be surprising if you know his back story. Legend has it that one day the god Shiva and his wife Parvati were having this huge domestic, and P told S that he was the worst and she was totally going to leave him. So Shiva took that anger, balled it up into a nice manageable package and deposited it with Anasuya (the wife of another sage and also one of the only great lady sages). Anasuya literally became pregnant with this anger, and from it was born Durvasa, whose name means “one who is difficult to live with.” I wish all men came with such handy-dandy warnings.
Pretty much from birth as an angry sage man-baby, Durvasa swept across the country getting furious about things. He runs into young Shakuntala, the sage Vishvamitra's abandoned baby, who was all grown up and dreaming about her new husband, but she failed to attend to the sage as sharply as he would like, and boom! Her new husband would forget all about her, cursed Durvasa, delighting in her misery. Kunti, mother of three of the five Pandavas, served Durvasa with alacrity and boom! She's suddenly in possession of a gift that calls down gods to impregnate her. Great and very appropriate present for a teenager. However some scholars speculate that Durvasa himself impregnated Kunti as a thank you gift/rape and the god stuff wasn't meant to be read too literally.
It wasn't just women who Durvasa was cruel to. Gods angered him by not behaving properly, kings pissed him off by not waiting long enough for him to return in order to break their fast. Wherever there is a curse story in the Hindu myths, there's often Durvasa, immortal and irritated. It's a good way to have a villain without really having a villain: no one can be too upset with a sage, after all, he is one of the great ones, answerable to no one. And with his anger a story is suddenly exciting — who wants to hear about Shakuntala and her happy ever after? Kunti without her children?
Unfortunately, there's no presence of a “whisper network” in Indian mythology. There might have been, and it might have been very effective, but since the essential nature of the whisper network is to pass on information about awful men in secret to your girlfriends, there's no mention of it at all. Then again, all the myths were likely passed down orally and then written down by men, so it's no surprise that the sages were just a part of the landscape, no big deal, just a guy over here who could break his meditation to have sex with you and then curse you for being so tempting.
And since many of the men who passed and wrote down mythology probably considered themselves sages of some sort, it may not be too far fetched to assume that they would also happily push a bit of propaganda about how it’s a bad idea to piss off the Brahmins.
But maybe there’s also a deeper lesson to be learnt from the sages. They hold up a mirror to modern day society, where many Indian men seem to consider themselves to be sages of some sort: above the law, above all women and able to get away with curses, rape and murder.
Read more from the 'Mythology for the Millennial' series here.
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of several books, including The One Who Swam with the Fishes: Girls of the Mahabharata. She tweets @reddymadhavan
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